Following the Scottish Government’s recent announcement that the country’s annual tree-planting targets have been surpassed, Brendan Callaghan, head of delivery and regions at Scottish Forestry, offers an insight into how this has been made possible.

IT turns out achieving 10,000 ha of tree planting in Scotland in a single year is surprisingly challenging and complex, requiring the co-ordinated and sustained efforts of thousands of forestry contractors, landowners, foresters, specialist surveyors, Scottish Forestry staff, government ministers and consultees, as well a host of supply chain businesses such as tree nurseries and fencing suppliers.

Last year, this involved over 300 farmers, estates, landowners and forestry investors securing approval and funding for tree planting in good time for them all to implement their individual projects in 2018. And Forest and Land Scotland planted almost 1,000 ha, approaching 50 per cent over their target.

In practical terms, as the regulator and funder of woodland creation, Scottish Forestry needs to have approved and committed to almost twice this area and number of projects. This is because most people want to allow plenty of time to plan and implement their planting schemes. This creates a challenge when you are trying to increase woodland creation delivery as, while the approval process can be a barrier to delivering the target, in two of the last three years we approved around double the area that was planted, and it has taken until 2018 for the level of planting to catch up. 

While forestry is a long-term business, I’m sure we’d all rather woodland creation didn’t take quite as long, from initial considerations to getting the trees planted. However, it’s understandable that it takes landowners some time to make a decision about a forestry project, and that most projects require some surveys and assessments to help develop a planting design that is both sympathetic to the circumstances of the site and meets the owner’s objectives. The new woodland creation application process, launched in Scotland in April 2018 following the Mackinnon review, was designed jointly with industry and consultees and aims to help speed things up. However, most of the projects planted in 2018 were already approved before April 2018, so we have yet to see the benefits of this new approach fully feeding through to woodland creation delivery.

Most Scottish Forestry staff spend their time focussed on working with and supporting agents and owners at an individual project level. This ranges from advising on the sensitivities on a site and agreeing how these might be taken into account, to dealing with complex objections and helping to resolve significant concerns about potential impact. Thankfully, in most cases we are able to resolve issues and agree acceptable designs. It is worth acknowledging that Scotland is now delivering a healthy mix of new woodland projects, with a roughly 60 per cent productive and 40 per cent native split.

As well as woodland type, it is important that we have a diversity of projects in terms of size and ownership. So far we have done quite well on this, with a good balance between small farm and crofter type schemes, which tend to cost more per hectare planted, and larger, more commercial schemes, which generally cost less per hectare. This mix is important for a number of reasons.

We clearly need farmers and small landowners to be carrying out forestry projects as, without them, we are unlikely to be able to plant 10,000 ha. We are also keen to reduce the cultural divide between farming and forestry. As the rural economy changes over the coming years, it will be increasingly important for farmers to be able to access new opportunities presented by integrating with forestry.

Achieving this balance does, however, create some challenges, as ministers have tasked us with delivering the woodland creation target within the budget provided. We need to ensure the mix of woodland creation projects and average grant rate of projects we support is affordable. In practice, this doesn’t affect many projects, as the published budget is partitioned with a proportion available for more expensive projects. And we have generally been able to accommodate the mix of projects that have come forward, ranging from £3k to £15k per hectare, and haven’t had to reject any applications or ask for many changes to make sure we hit the target average cost as well as the target area.

Going forward, this may become more of a challenge, particularly where we receive larger applications with very high costs per hectare. These are difficult for us to accommodate, and where we are concerned about the value for money and our ability to afford high per-hectare costs, we need to ask applicants to either reconsider their designs and come up with a more cost-effective plan or limit the grant contribution. This only tends to occur where projects have long linear planting designs with very high fencing costs. We do occasionally have to remind ourselves that we manage the Forestry Grant Scheme and not the Fencing Grant Scheme. 

Looking forward, we are now in a much more comfortable position in terms of approvals for this year. We started 2019 with over 10,000 ha of planting already approved. Of this, 8,000 ha was for 2019 and the rest was for through to 2024. Hopefully this gives us and the forestry industry more confidence that we will be able to sustain and build on last year’s 11,000 ha of planting, and that their trees and services will definitely be required, in 2019 and beyond.

We are aiming to be in a similar position in early 2020, particular as Scottish Government and sector ambitions for woodland creation grow and the need to contribute to climate change targets continues to increase. In fact, we are aiming to start next year with over 10,000 ha of woodland creation already committed for 2020 and another 5,000 ha or so for future years. We believe this is realistic as we know the industry is currently working on over 22,000 ha of woodland creation projects across Scotland, and the new approval process is helping us to deal with many of these more efficiently (and quickly).