Scotland’s public forests ‘at risk’ from management shake-up

Wildlife, walking and other woodland attractions across the country are under threat from plans by Scotland’s largest public landowner to slash specialist staff, campaigners are warning.

Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) is proposing to halve the number of key staff responsible for nature conservation and recreation, and to cut deer and wildlife ranger managers.

The restructuring proposals have been rejected by forestry trade unions, and sparked widespread alarm amongst experts and environmental groups. They are worried that the public benefits of woodlands are being downgraded in favour of commercial conifer plantations.

The restructuring foreshadows a major forestry reorganisation being planned by Scottish ministers over the next few years. That has also run into opposition for favouring serried ranks of Sitka spruce trees over more environmentally friendly mixed woodlands.

FCS runs nine per cent of Scotland’s land – more that 650,000 hectares – on behalf of the Scottish Government. That includes more than 220 designated conservation areas treasured for their animals, plants and trees including eagles, beavers, red squirrels and ancient Scots pine.

In recent years FCS has won admiration for its “multi-purpose” forestry aimed at enhancing wildlife, amenity and other public benefits as well as growing conifers to sell. But there are now fears that this is changing.

Senior FCS officials are proposing a major restructuring aimed at reducing the number of management districts in Scotland from 10 to five. According to insiders, this will cut the number of environmental and recreational team leaders from 20 to ten, as well as shedding deer and wildlife ranger posts.

One FCS source described environmental specialists as the organisation’s “moral conscience”. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he was “very disappointed” about what was happening.

“This will erode the environmental functions of the commission. I don’t believe that this is what most people want. It’s Sitka first now.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland criticised the lack of consultation on the restructuring. “We are very concerned that the multi-purpose forestry ethos is at risk, including a raft of conservation programmes,” said the society’s Duncan Orr-Ewing.

“It is critically important that the public are consulted about these apparently significant changes as to how our national forest estate is managed in the future to ensure it is in the public interest.”

The conservation charity, Woodland Trust Scotland, said it would be “disappointed” to see drastic staffing cuts. “FCS has come such a long way over the years promoting nature and modern mixed-use forestry,” said the trust’s public affairs manager, Charles Dundas.

“It would be depressing to see a step backwards to the bad old days of short-term gains from narrow monocultures.”

The outdoor campaign group, Ramblers Scotland, pointed out that forestry tourism contributed over £180 million to the Scottish economy every year. “Clearly we’re concerned about any changes that could hit forest recreation,” said the group’s Helen Todd.

The Forest Policy Group think tank accused senior FCS officials of “filleting” its commercial arm, Forestry Enterprise Scotland (FES). “Removing social and environmental roles would clearly threaten the quality of what it does on environmental and social benefits,” said one of the group’s founding members, Willie McGhee.

“These changes appear to be a response to senior management dogma, austerity and in part making FES fit for purpose to operate as new agency.”

The Scottish Government has been discussing plans for an overall reorganisation of forestry as full responsibility is devolved by Westminster. Ministers want to make FCS a dedicated division within government and turn FES into a new agency called Forestry and Land Scotland.

But the plans have sparked widespread concerns. “I think most stakeholders involved in land use and forestry in Scotland are alarmed about the loss of FCS’s openness,” said McGhee.

“They are surprised at the way in which senior civil servants have contrived to split up FCS, ignoring the results of their public consultation, which overwhelmingly rejected such a move.”

Labour’s rural spokesperson, Rhoda Grant MSP, warned that changes to the structure of FCS mustn’t damage forestry’s crucial role in storing carbon and protecting wildlife. “We need more forestry in Scotland and it must be planted in a way that protects our environment as well as working with local communities,” she said.

“There are real fears that expertise will be lost with the changes being made. Scottish Labour will bring forward amendments to ensure that expertise is held within the new structures and that the new body works and engages with stakeholders.”

The PCS trade union, which represents many FCS staff, was also critical of the planned reorganisation. “Splitting up the two parts of FCS is likely to make it more difficult for staff to deliver the multiple benefits that people enjoy, such as recreation, amenity and conservation,” said a PCS spokesperson.

The union couldn’t comment, however, on the proposed restructuring threatening environmental specialists because it was engaged in “a formal consultation process”. But The Ferret understands that all the forestry unions are opposing the plans.

FCS argued that it had fully consulted staff on a “new, simpler organisational structure” to enable it to maintain its objectives. “We are planning to keep all the local offices and maintain our local presence on the ground,” said FES chief executive, Simon Hodge.

“We appreciate that change is often a challenge and we have ensured that our colleagues have been fully involved in the process. To that end, the project team taking forward the proposals has been made up of staff from a range of grades and locations,” he said.

“We have received a detailed response from the Forestry Commission trade unions which we will be giving full consideration to, and we will continue to work with them to address any issues and concerns they may have.”

The Scottish Government pointed out that the rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, had met with FCS senior officials and union representatives. “Completing the devolution of forestry will ensure our forests can deliver even more benefits to the people of Scotland,” said a spokesman.

“The legislation currently going through Parliament includes a duty on Scottish ministers to promote sustainable forest management, which requires a balance between the environmental, social and economic aspects of forestry.”

Scotland precious forests

Glen Affric, in the Highlands west of Loch Ness, is regarded as one of Scotland’s most beautiful. A protected National Nature Reserve, it contains ancient Caledonian pinewoods and a huge host of wildlife, including 28 mammals, 117 species of bird, 30 kinds of butterfly and dragonfly and 390 lichens, mosses and liverworts.

Rothiemurchus in the Cairngorms near Aviemore, is another attractive and precious fragment of ancient Caledonian pine forest including ospreys, capercaillie and wildcats. The Forestry Commission bought a large section of the forest from a private landowner in a controversial deal in 2014.

Glentress Forest, near Peebles in the Scottish Borders, is the most popular forest in the Tweed valley, with biking trails, walks and wildlife watching. It has 35 metre high Douglas firs more than a century old, tawny owls, buzzards, roe deer and badgers.

Queen Elizabeth Forest Park on the shore of Loch Lomond includes popular peaks such as Ben Lomond, Ben A’an, Ben Venue, Ben Ledi and the famous waters of Loch Katrine with its steamship. Near Aberfoyle, there’s a place for watching red squirrels, a waterfall and ropes for swinging through the trees.

Bennachie in Aberdeenshire has a famous Pictish hill fort, and a host of ancient stories to go with it. Amongst the rich diversity of wildlife are ants, newts, dragonflies, crossbills, long tailed tits, red squirrels and peregrines.

Kirroughtree Forest, near Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway, is a tranquil mixed woodland with broad-leaved trees and conifers. There are spring flowers around Bruntis Loch, and a famous mountain bike trail.

Photo thanks to Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 4.0, A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 26 November 2017.

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