The Scottish Government should buy up, break up and sell off large forestry estates to diversify woodland ownership, experts are recommending.
That’s one of the key changes needed if Scotland is to double its tree cover so that 40 per cent of the country is woodland within the next hundred years, they say — with 60 per cent being native trees.
A forestry think tank commissioned by former Green MSP, Andy Wightman, is urging “lateral thinking” to break the logjam on land reform by using “transitional public ownership” – public agencies buying up forests and selling them on. It has outlined a “radical” vision for a “woodland nation”.
The report, published today, has been widely welcomed by campaigners as “practical”, “well-considered” and “thought-provoking”. But the forestry industry described the 40 per cent target as “extremely ambitious” while landowners were critical of calls for changes in ownership.
The Scottish Government agreed that more trees needed to be planted but said this should be done “in a careful and considered way”. It said it was “committed to land reform on an ongoing basis”.
Campaigners hope that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s new ministerial team, installed since the election in May, will bring opportunities for change.
They point out forestry has been shifted from rural economy to the environment portfolio, and that the SNP MSP, Fergus Ewing — seen by some as too pro-industry — is no longer a minister.
The new 73-page report is entitled ‘Woodland Nation: pathways to a forested Scotland owned by the people’. It was written by two experienced foresters, Anna Lawrence and Willie McGhee, from the Forestry Policy Group in Scotland.
They map out how Scotland could hugely expand its tree cover by adding 1.7 million hectares, of which 1.5 million would be native woodland. Currently about 1.47 million hectares of Scotland are woodland.
Such an expansion would mean increasing native forests fivefold, and boosting productive conifer forests by one and a half times. There is “sufficient suitable land” for the extra woodlands, they say.
If tree planting continued at the current rate, 40 per cent of Scotland could be forested by 2120. But if planting was super-charged this could be achieved by as soon as 2040, they argue.
“Scotland’s forest expansion should prioritise a more diverse range of species and forest management systems,” the report says.
“There is a need to proactively stimulate woodland creation which lies between the two current poles of money-oriented clear fell and restock exotic conifer, and biodiversity-oriented native woodland restoration.”
The report urges toughening recommended targets for reducing deer numbers by aiming for three or less per hectare. High numbers maintained by sporting estates inhibit forest regeneration because deer eat saplings.
The report also backs a ban on muirburn — the burning of heather on grouse moors — because it destroys seedlings. It supports moves to licence game shooting.
Essential to meeting the targets for more woodlands is a “shift to more socially just land ownership”, the report says. Scotland has the “most concentrated pattern of private forest ownership in Europe” with 55 per cent of private forests owned by absentee landowners.
Progress so far on communities acquiring land has been slow, it points out. The process has been “exhausting, traumatic, and occasionally thrilling”, with the community’s legal right to buy “experienced as onerous, adversarial and with a high failure rate”.
This needs to change so the benefits of woodland ownership can reach more people, the report says. “Public ownership should be enhanced through a more public-facing national forest agency, and through political support for local government forest ownership and woodland creation,” it urges.
“Public forest agencies and local authorities should act as intermediary owners to facilitate the transfer of ownership between single large owners and multiple smaller-scale owners.”
State ownership could be transitional. “A public land agency buys land as it comes to market, possibly through a priority system which allows it first refusal,” the report suggests.
“The agency then either sells the land on, in small units, or sells shares in the whole forest…A similar idea has been proposed for local authority ownership to facilitate community or community benefit share purchase.”
Compulsory purchase could be required “where large scale national ownership is in the public interest, such as in national parks”, the report adds.
“This approach could be particularly valuable in driving landscape scale restoration in forest habitat networks followed by smaller scale ownership to manage, maintain and share in the benefits of the ecological network.”
The report also argues for “more democratic forestry decision-making”. It points out that the government’s Forestry and Land Scotland has been criticised as “inefficient, bureaucratic, unaccountable and fails to engage effectively with communities and small local businesses”.
More people should take part in decisions about forests, it recommends. “The current forestry decision-making process should be at least as open, accessible and accountable as the current local planning consultation process operated by planning authorities.”
Andy Wightman, a land reform campaigner who was not re-elected as an independent to the Scottish Parliament in May, argued that 40 per cent tree cover was an achievable target. He called on ministers to create a “woodland nation owned by the people and local communities”.
He told The Ferret: “But achieving this within the current model of afforestation driven by external capital and control will exacerbate inequalities and deny communities a meaningful stake in this important economy.
“The expansion of forestry should be owned and controlled predominantly by local businesses, communities, individuals and local authorities. New models of investment through community shares, crowdfunding and mutual ownership will also enable many more people to enjoy a meaningful stake in this important land use.”
He was backed by the Community Woodlands Association, which represents 200 local groups. “The Green New Deal targets to which the report offers pathways are extremely demanding and it is clear that radical actions are required if they are to be achieved,” said the association’s chief executive, Jon Hollingdale.
“In particular the fiscal regime — tax exemptions, grants and subsidies — which applies to forestry and land ownership needs fundamental review and redesign to ensure the benefits of woodland expansion are fairly distributed and to secure best value for public funds.”
The campaign group, Reforesting Scotland, also endorsed the report’s recommendations. “Large parts of Scotland’s countryside are degraded, unfairly distributed and polarised between different forms of land use,” said the group’s founding director, Donald McPhillimy.
“At its worst, deer numbers are out of control, hill sheep numbers are too high, over simplistic plantation forestry holds sway and large areas of grouse moor are burned so that a few people can shoot birds for entertainment.”
According to Woodland Trust, the report offered “ambitious, radical and practical ideas to break away from the current model and strange practices we have come to think normal”. It came at a “crucial time”, as Scotland has to decide what kind of forest it wants.
The rewilding charity, Trees for Life, described the report as “well considered and thought-provoking”. The benefits of restoring more native woodland in a “gradual and fair transition” would be huge, it said.
Confor, the forestry industry association, stressed the multiple benefits of woodlands. “Forestry and wood processing is a 21st century Scottish success story,” said chief executive, Stuart Goodall.
“Planting 40 per cent of land in Scotland with trees is an extremely ambitious target and tree planting of all types, owned and managed by a wide range of people and groups, would be needed to come close to achieving that.”
Goodall pointed out that there was cross-party support at the election for more tree-planting, including modern productive forests. Lessons had been learned so that “mistakes associated with the last century do not recur when tree planting proposals are given the go ahead.”
Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, was pleased that a woodland nation would be “predominantly” owned and controlled by local businesses, communities, individuals and local authorities. More than two thirds of Scotland’s forests were privately owned, as well as 89 per cent of broad-leaved woodlands.
“It is unsurprising that land reform campaigners call yet again for changes in land ownership to achieve land use change that is already happening within Scotland. There is a raft of legislation already in place that ensures land is offered to community groups that have registered an interest,” said the group’s chief executive, Sarah Jane Laing.
The Scottish Land Commission, which was set up by ministers, is examining how land markets and rights could be reformed. “We need to rethink how we own and use land, particularly in making a just transition to a net zero economy,” said chief executive, Hamish Trench.
The government agency, Scottish Forestry, welcomed recognition of the important role that forests play. The Forestry Policy Group had been engaged in the development of Scotland’s forestry strategy, it pointed out.
A spokesperson said: “We agree that our forests and woodlands need to contribute more now than ever before. We need to plant more and faster, but increasing woodland cover needs to be done in a careful and considered way.
“The Scottish Government is committed to land reform on an ongoing basis.” Over the last five years 26 community groups had been given £3.7 million towards the acquisition of woodlands and forests.
Campaign groups see the recent decision to move the forestry ministerial brief out of rural economy and into environment as a good sign. They are privately up-beat about Fergus Ewing’s departure from the cabinet, as he was viewed as a strong supporter of the forestry industry.
“The ideas in this report would once have been thought too radical to act on, but the departure of Fergus Ewing from the Scottish Government could be a game-changer,” one campaigner told The Ferret.
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.
Cover image thanks to iStock/espy3008.