The recent Forest Policy Group Conference considered how ‘Better Forestry’ could be achieved in Scotland. We went along to get a feel for what that could entail. 

IT began with a call to arms, and ended with a declaration of intent. Relatively fresh from December’s (ill-fated) Woodland Creation Summit, it was the turn last month of the Forest Policy Group to host a major conference, with the ambition of determining a better future for the industry in Scotland.

“We have four questions and zero answers,” said the FPG’s co-chair Alan McDonnell during his opening remarks at the Birnam Arts Centre, setting the tone nicely for what was to come.

There was a sense throughout the day that this was not to be a revolution from the top down, with delegates instead encouraged to make themselves heard. And they did with some gusto.

“We can agree to differ”

Opening the event to a packed audience in Perthshire – which consisted of a wide range of forestry professionals – Alan began by detailing the four questions that were to be the focus of the discussion:

1. What is the need for change – what are the drivers and challenges we face?
2. What resources do we have – what values, ideas, experiences and assets can we use?
3. What would ‘better’ look like?
4. How can we get there?

“We see today as both the end of something and the beginning,” Alan remarked. “We want to think about the challenges and the opportunities, and just how difficult it is to see what’s coming along the track.

“Today is about ideas, and getting some positivity going. Uncertainty has been a big part of our thinking, and we want to look at how we approach this subject better.”

Bringing a nationwide perspective to the current state of forest ownership in Scotland was Andy Wightman – the former Green MSP and forester by trade – who gave an abridged version of his recent report on the subject. Detailing how fewer people now owned 30 per cent more woodland than in 2012, he argued that current forestry policy – developed in isolation from other areas – had failed to tip the balance away from wealthy individuals.

Forestry Journal: Andy Wightman outlined his belief that Scotland's forestry estate has been contracted out to London financers Andy Wightman outlined his belief that Scotland's forestry estate has been contracted out to London financers (Image: FJ/JM)

“Fundamentally, we’ve contracted out forestry to financial interests in the city of London,” he said. “We let them operate in an unregulated land market with no regard to the interests of local communities.

“Ask yourself whether we genuinely have joined-up thinking over Scottish land use. Private investment is vital, but it has to come from a more diverse range of sources.”

Andy, who studied forestry at Aberdeen University, went on to outline that he believed Scotland could be a woodland nation and increase tree cover to 40 per cent by 2040. In terms of funding, community benefit societies, crowdfunding, public bonds, and co-operatives were just some of the other methods he argued could be used to secure the money forestry needs to attain its goals.

“We can agree to differ on key issues, but still seek to chart a way forward [for forestry],” he said.

Offering a more practical example of how ‘better forestry’ was being done in the here and now was forestry consultancy firm TreeStory. Led by Claire Wightman, the group introduced delegates to the “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Ecosystem Services Procedure”. A woodland management certification, this determines the positive impact of forest management on ecosystems. Only forests or woodlands that are covered by FSC forest-management certification are eligible for ecosystem service impact verification using the FSC Ecosystem Service Procedure.

TreeStory’s work was shown in several examples, outlined by Andrew Sheridan and Nicky Hume. This included an estate in Penicuik, around 15 km from Edinburgh, which had taken a responsible approach to its woodland management, with thinning very much at the heart of everything it was doing. Nicky went on to show how TreeStory’s mapping software was helping contractors to attend to one site carefully, by detailing which areas of the land had to be avoided.

Forestry Journal: There was plenty of time to mingle.There was plenty of time to mingle. (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

“Investors have an appetite for this,” concluded Elanor Teel. “There is growing and justifiable scepticism about carbon offsetting projects.”

If Scotland – and the wider UK – is going to plant more trees, farmers will have to be on board. But they can’t be forced.

Making that particular case was the next speaker, Scottish Forestry’s Lyn White, who leads the government agency’s Integrating Trees Network (ITN). Consisting of farmers from across Scotland who have – you guessed it – integrated trees onto their farms, the concept has proven increasingly popular in recent years.

Throughout her presentation, Lyn was at pains to make it clear that SF was there to facilitate events – usually held on farms – rather than to lead them. Lyn cited several examples of successful agroforesters, including Netherund Home Farm and its 40 hectares of woodland, which won the inaugural Best Agroforestry Award at the Scottish Agriculture Awards last year for its tree-growing mission.

“What do we need to do [to get you planting trees]?” Lyn asked. “How do we get you on the dancefloor?

Forestry Journal: Delegates had the chance to ask a number of key questions. Delegates had the chance to ask a number of key questions. (Image: FJ/JH)

“We need to give people opportunities and to help them meet their objectives.”
Concluding, Lyn said: “Trees are good for bees, good for bullocks and good for business.”

With his distinctive look, there was no missing the next speaker. Andrew MacQueen, a forester based in the south of Scotland, detailed how he had introduced different species to his estate; partly due to planned changes and partly due to events beyond his control, such as the spread of Phytophthora ramorum. He further argued that, while scary, climate change provided an opportunity.

“We can look at biodiversity not as a force that is tacked on to a forest at the expense of production, but as something that might safeguard the future of production,” he said. “That totally changes the picture and the conversation.”

His presentation went down a treat with delegates, with one later remarking to Forestry Journal that they wished he had been given more than the allocated 10 minutes to speak, such was their interest in his silvicultural systems.

“Why is there a requirement for forests to do unproductive broadleaf but not productive hardwood?” Andrew concluded. “I don’t understand this.

“Silviculture diversity doesn’t get enough press.”

A peninsula on Scotland’s west coast, Knoydart will be familiar to Forestry Journal readers, having featured on these pages before. Community owned and managed by the Knoydart Foundation, the Highland estate comprises around 55,000 acres of woodland and is cut off from the UK’s road network. But that hasn’t stopped it from thriving.

Grant Holroyd, head forester at the Knoydart Forest Trust, explained how the group carries out a full range of forestry activities, including woodland creation, firewood processing, and sawmilling. Relatively new additions to the organisation’s portfolio include a tree nursery, which can already produce 12,000 trees each year. This is likely to rise before too long.

Forestry Journal: FPG member Jamie McIntyre was among those to contribute during the day FPG member Jamie McIntyre was among those to contribute during the day (Image: FJ/JM)

“You need some sort of vision and long-term plan,” he said, outlining the key to Knoydart’s success. “You have to strive for some level of quality, and have to be opportunistic.”

Professor Ian Wall – who you may recognise from Confor’s blacklist – took delegates through the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s (RSE) recent report next, which called for coniferous plantations to lose access to public cash in Scotland. To say this had received a frosty reception in some forestry quarters would be putting it mildly, so all credit to Prof Wall for not dodging a room of foresters.

While it was, undoubtedly, the most contentious presentation of the day – and Prof Wall’s indifference to the UK importing 81 per cent of its wood remained striking – there were many who lapped it up.

Among several key points, Prof Wall argued that commercial conifers are poor at sequestering carbon, Sitka spruce is not great for biodiversity, and forest visitors are not interested in large softwood plantations. He also suggested that environmental impact assessments (EIA) are not routinely scrutinised.

Each of these points would likely be strongly contested by many within the industry, but FJ spoke to several delegates who were adamant the reliance on Sitka spruce had to go. 

Forestry Journal: Prof Wall outlined his belief that coniferous plantations should lose access to public cash in Scotland Prof Wall outlined his belief that coniferous plantations should lose access to public cash in Scotland (Image: FJ/JM)

Prof Wall’s relatively warm reception could be explained in part by the absence of any of the ‘big boys’ from the event, but it certainly was one of the most notable takeaways from the morning session, which ended with a wide-ranging Q&A. Topics included soil quality, wood recycling, and the lack of woodland management in the UK.

“Change is coming”

A lively afternoon session began with a soapbox, offering anyone inside the room the chance to have their voice heard. Needless to say, many of the delegates didn’t need a second invitation, with the likes of Bill Mason, Jamie McIntyre and Ian Ross all taking to the floor. In one of the day’s unexpected headlines, Scottish Forestry’s Brendan Callaghan revealed the public register is going to “rapidly change” in about a year’s time. This was greeted by a few cheers from the audience.

From the public to the private sector, and the afternoon’s first presentation came from Hazel Cowan, forest manager with Cawdor Forestry. One of Cawdor’s main responsibilities is the nearly 7,000 ha of woodland on the Cawdor Estate outside Inverness. A traditional Highland sporting estate, its woodland is divided into commercial (providing 20,000 tonnes of timber), amenity, and conservation.

Forestry Journal: Hazel Cowan, forest manager with Cawdor ForestryHazel Cowan, forest manager with Cawdor Forestry (Image: FJ/JM)

But what sets Cawdor apart from other similar estates is that it took the decision to adopt a continuous-cover forestry approach on a section of its land, moving away from the even-aged woodland of before.

“The estate has a history of natural regeneration,” Hazel said. “There was the attraction of not having all of its eggs in the one basket.”

A 300-ha section of Scots pine was chosen, using a strip system. In the 10 years since, the mini woodland is flourishing, with trees born out of natural regen now standing 2 m tall. Such has been the success that Cawdor now has 10 strips like this across its woodland estate.

Bringing the day’s presentations to a close were Hamish Trench and Nick Underdown, who offered an outside perspective on rural Scotland. First, Hamish, chief executive of the Scottish Land Commission, detailed how community land ownership – and the expectations of local communities – was changing. Second,

Nick outlined how marine ecosystem campaign group Openseas had enacted meaningful change in fishing through its campaigns. This provided plenty of food for thought as to how similar could be done in forestry.

“Go out and do it"

By the end of the day, much consensus had been reached on the wider issues, with several proposed actions now under consideration. This included influencing Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) to lead the seachange and innovate on the public forest estate – the recently purchased Glenprosen was cited as a prime location where it could do just that – and increasing priority to be placed on thinning over clearfell. There was firm nodding of heads when one forester suggested continuous-cover forestry should be the norm.

Forestry Journal: The event involved a wide range of forestry professionals, working across Scotland. The event involved a wide range of forestry professionals, working across Scotland. (Image: FJ/JM)

“We need to enact that change,” Alan surmised in his closing remarks. “That change will come from us.”

But perhaps TreeStrory’s Claire Wightman summed it up best when she told the room to “just go out and do it”.