Held in the wake of Scotland’s recent planting slump, the forestry summit gave stakeholders from across the country a chance to air their views directly with government officials. Forestry Journal went along to capture the mood. 

WHEN all was said and done at last month’s long-awaited Scottish forestry summit, one thing was clear – the nation’s foresters were pretty much in agreement about the main issues facing the industry. 

Called in the wake of a major slump in woodland-creation rates, the meeting saw representatives from the likes of Confor, Tilhill, Moray Estates, Fountains Forestry, and many others discuss how to get the country’s planting back on track. 

And several common themes emerged from the discussions, including frustrations over the woodland-creation application process, a perceived lack of leadership from Scotland’s forestry officials, and worries over skills shortages in the sector. 

Record approvals 

Forestry Journal: Mairi Gougeon opened the conference Mairi Gougeon opened the conference (Image: Alan Peebles)

Welcoming guests to NatureScot’s Battleby Conference Centre, Perth, Mairi Gougeon, the rural affairs secretary, began by making a headline-grabbing announcement. Scottish Forestry chiefs had approved a record number of woodland-creation applications for the current planting season, the 13,111 hectare total marginally more than the 13,068 achieved in 2020/21. Out of that sum, 6,748 ha were native species, which was also the highest-ever recorded. 

The challenge now is turning those approvals into trees in the ground and avoiding the slippage of recent years. In the 2022/23 season, for example, 10,479 ha were given the green light, but a touch over 8,000 ha was achieved in reality. 

“I am here at the summit to listen, but also to ask what more everyone else can do,” Ms Gougeon told delegates. “In order to go further in our woodland-expansion efforts, we need to work collectively and ensure that we manage this expansion carefully, taking into account other rural interests.


“We must continue to involve communities and work hard to get the right trees in the right place. I’m very encouraged at the number of application approvals hitting a record this century – that’s a tremendous achievement. However, although the approvals are very encouraging, we need to acknowledge that we still have a way to go in meeting the actual targets. More work by everyone on this is needed.” 

On the eve of the summit, Scottish Woodlands had released the results of an internal survey it had undertaken, and it didn’t make for pretty reading for forestry officials. 

Frontline staff had faced increasing “verbal and racial abuse and physical threats” resulting from the woodland-creation process in Scotland, with “poor direction” and “lack of clarity” around forestry grants to blame. SW chiefs went further by saying the current system was “not fit for purpose” and there was a serious risk the country would once again miss its planting targets as a result. 

Forestry Journal: Helen McKay, Scotland's chief forester, was among the speakers Helen McKay, Scotland's chief forester, was among the speakers (Image: Alan Peebles)

Presenting the results of a poll taken of attendees ahead of the event, Scotland’s chief forester, Helen McKay, outlined that there was much agreement among the delegates that the current process needed improving. 

It was ranked as the number-one barrier to woodland creation, while changing the procedure was similarly top placed as a way of stimulating more tree planting. 

Helen went on to detail some of the work being undertaken to tackle forestry’s skills shortages in Scotland, including a pilot apprentice programme and efforts from Confor and the SRUC. 

“There is a lot still to do and the challenge is huge,” she said. “If I put the challenge of 18,000 ha into context, that’s just a smidgeon over the size of Glasgow.” 

‘There are a lot of issues’ 

Forestry Journal: Farmer Andrew Barbour took one of the workshopsFarmer Andrew Barbour took one of the workshops (Image: Alen Peebles)

For the next few hours, delegates broke out into private workshops where they had the chance to voice their thoughts and feelings. Returning after lunch, the results of these were presented by a handful of chairs (including former Institute of Chartered Foresters chief executive Shireen Chambers) to the wider sector. 

As well as the themes already mentioned, deer management, the availability of land, and the need to train the private and public sectors together emerged from the discussions. Complaints over the attainability of grant funding were also heard.

Delegates brought forward a number of necessary actions to improve the situation, including the need for forestry officials to “adhere to timescales” during applications, and for a more rounded, unified vision of Scotland’s forests for the 22nd century.  

The day was brought to a close with a panel that included the ICF’s Louise Simpson, Confor’s Stuart Goodall, and Scottish Forestry’s Brendan Callaghan. Helen was also on it, and reflected on the day’s discussions: “We don’t get the message across of how we will create better woodland.”

She went on to detail her experience of British Columbia, Canada, where clear signage both at the roadside and in the forest outlined the long-term work behind one project. 

On recent slippage from approvals to real levels of woodland creation, she added: “This is still an issue between approvals and grants claimed. 

“We need to have a real analytical eye on this to know why.” 

“There was a lot of angst and emotion going into this,” said Louise. “But it has gone so well and in the right spirit. The fact woodland-creation applications can be taking four years to get through is just barmy. We need to have a stable and consistent working environment.” 

“The first thing that jumped out at me is that there are a lot of things that have been identified,” Stuart said. “The challenge is now to unpack that, and a big part of today is what happens next. We are not going to be able to do all of them and be effective.” 

Stuart went on to note a “couple of upcoming niggles”, explaining that some people in the sector are worried about a lack of applications in three of four years’ time. “It can’t be a case of we hit 18,000 ha and just stop.”

He added: “We can’t lose the link between what we are doing and climate change.” 

Brendan, who admitted his apprehension ahead of the event, said he had been impressed by the “insightful discussion” throughout the day. 

A brief Q&A followed, with Craig Turner, CEO of Alba Trees, pertinently asking: “How do we get the public to say they want us to plant a forest in their back garden?”

Forestry Journal: Tilhill's Andrew Vaughan and Harry Wilson, of RTS Forestry, share a quiet word Tilhill's Andrew Vaughan and Harry Wilson, of RTS Forestry, share a quiet word (Image: Alan Peebles) 

“There has been a change in perception of forestry,” Helen said. “My evidence for this is that hundreds of people are applying for Scottish Forestry and Forestry and Land Scotland jobs. There are pockets of people really getting it.”

Vicki Swales, head of land use policy at the RSPB, asked about forestry’s place in government policy. “Where does it fit?”

“That’s a big challenge,” said Paul Lowe, interim CEO of Scottish Forestry, who was chairing the discussion. 

“Communication is a big part of this for me,” Stuart added. “I often feel like I am entering a hostile environment. Whether it’s community groups or journalists, no one ever asks me about how good conifers are. We need to have a common message.”

Author's note: The conference took place before the Scottish Government announced it was cutting Scottish Forestry's budget by £30 million