IT’S funny how Kent – not the most obvious spearhead of forestry in the UK – keeps raising its head in the press. After recent crackpot rewilding schemes (buffaloes and all), we now learn that an area “the size of Kent” will be planted before 2050 to meet our legally binding targets for new planting.

Just what these targets are, apart from zero carbon emission, is unknown. The Environment Act 2021 dithers about environmental targets which are not just speculative, but emotionally charged in a way that obscures their values. Why can’t statisticians stick to things we all understand, such as the number of football pitches it represents? Or areas the size of Wales? And why can’t our industry, profession, call it what you will, point out that seeing forests, old or new, through these rosy environmental spectacles misses the point that timber, uniquely, is a self-renewing raw material which can achieve all the airy-fairy objectives and produce, at the same time, measurable quantities of that immensely valuable essential material, essential in all kinds of contexts and industries? Mankind’s oldest, most versatile and best-regarded raw material, wood.

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Why not set our targets with reference to measurable performance? Why not, instead of areas planted, set targets of volume increment achieved? Let’s stop wasting money and effort on daft schemes featuring native species. Such adventures must be the exception, not the rule. How can we, forest managers, allow the opportunity to produce the kind of quality that the market will demand to slip by?

What we are going to need is more sound, well-planned, well-managed plantations, not grey squirrel habitat. We can have good forests as well as environmentally valuable forests – just take a walk out in my neighbouring Forest of Dean for an example. Instead of the super, magnificently valuable Yield Class 24 Douglas fir we would, if current environmental guidelines had been set 50 years ago, have tatty, damaged disease-prone woods with no economic value at all.

And we know how to deliver it. Site assessment used to be a basic skill. Remember net-discounted revenue? There are other examples. The Republic of Ireland had a negligible planting programme in the 1980s, but concentration on high-yielding sites attracted a revolution in the countryside and an economic result which showed, in hard economic terms, how forests can deliver.

But why look across the water when our own Forestry Commission must surely rank among the leaders of any area of government investment in terms of values delivered to the treasury in the 20th century? Forecasting future yields and values from a consideration of site factors, from soil type to climate, topically wind hazard to proximity of markets, were just some of the skills we learned at school. So before the ploughs dig into the alkaline soils of Kent (rainfall 50 cm per annum), let’s set new objectives which reflect proper forestry, an area of expertise which seems to be headed in the wrong direction at the moment. We have to concentrate on quality, quantity and downright excellence of skills, knowledge and experience, which is just not happening at the moment.

Forestry Journal: George Eustice, the environment secretary George Eustice, the environment secretary

And it’s not just me that’s moaning. I hear that the National Audit Office considers DEFRA’s targets for new planting to be unrealistic. There is a shortage of nursery stock and foresters. We are short 18 per cent of the staff we are going to need and landowners, at whom all grant support is aimed, don’t trust DEFRA or, sad to say, the Forestry Commission.

READ MORE: Forester's Diary March 2022: Unrealistic tree planting targets in the UK and tackling public opinion

The Commish takes too long to approve planting grant applications. I have been waiting over two years for a response to a seemingly simple case, so I know. I could quote Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who recently opined that the basics underlying planting grants were not done before the scheme was launched and targets were clearly unrealistic. Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, agrees. There are significant challenges for DEFRA if it is to attract landowners into the various schemes (remember dead ELMS?) and it appears said landowners have little appetite for tree planting. There’s a variety of reasons for this, but it’s basically because land values must collapse in the short term. Farmers have no history as foresters. They don’t like the cash-flow patterns inherent in growing timber. So why not take the whole scheme of new planting back in-house? Revive the Forestry Commission. Let the state buy land and plant it!

So there we are. Unrealistic, understaffed, shortage of skills, unattainable objectives – remember, you heard it here first. It would be nice to think that within DEFRA is someone influential who begins to understand forestry. Wouldn’t it? And would it be too much to expect a response from DEFRA to this article?

Perhaps they haven’t got one.