STAKEHOLDERS from across the industry came together on Tuesday for the Scottish forestry summit. 

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

And the summit was opened by keynote speaker Mairi Gougeon, the rural affairs secretary, who announced Scottish Forestry officials had approved a record 13,111 hectares of woodland creation applications, the highest total since the turn of the century. 

The following is Ms Gougeon's speech in full in which she touched on the barriers faced by the industry, constraints on government, skills shortages, and the way ahead. 

Forestry Journal will have in-depth coverage from the summit across our channels and in January's edition of the magazine. 

I am delighted to see so many of you joining us today at Battleby to discuss Woodland Creation, and I look forward greatly to hearing your ideas and contributions.

The Scottish Government has an ambitious agenda to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. A central pillar of our response is to increase the rate of woodland creation.

This is a shared endeavour and it is why we are bringing together Government, the public, private and third sectors to look at how we can make further progress.

Today’s summit couldn’t come at a better time. Today I am delighted to announce the highest annual planting approvals by Scottish Forestry this century, at over 13,000 hectares.

Significantly this figure also includes the highest-ever native woodland approvals, at over 6,700 hectares.

This means we are once again on track to meet the Bute House Agreement target of a minimum of 4,000 hectares of native woodland this year.

We also want to see the area of productive forests coming through increasing because of its important role in generating benefits for the economy, providing jobs and sequestering carbon quickly to help meet Net Zero targets. And perhaps the drop off in productive forestry applications and approvals is something we can explore today, to help us get back on track.

Forestry Journal: Confor's chief executive Stuart Goodall was among the attendees at the forestry summit Confor's chief executive Stuart Goodall was among the attendees at the forestry summit

But ultimately, the record number of approvals is wonderful news, we need to celebrate success wherever and whenever we achieve it, and I want to thank everyone for this great effort.

But even with this significant progress, we are still not on track to reach our overall woodland creation target.

You are as aware as I am, that this is not a challenge that Government can deliver alone, it requires a coming-together of our collective skills, experience and capabilities. This is the focus for our discussions today.

This is a day for listening, but also a call for action. All of us benefit if we work together to increase woodland creation rates in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to forestry will continue, but it will require everyone to work together better to deliver what is needed for the future.

The benefits of more woodland creation

You will all be aware of our woodland creation target of planting 18,000 hectares a year by 2024/25.

Increasing the rate of woodland creation is a key part of how Scotland will become Net Zero, and an important part of our Climate Change Plan.

No one here today will have missed the increases in storms, heavy rainfall and drought, and the spread of pests and diseases. Climate change is real, and forestry has a key role to play in mitigating and adapting to it by increasing the number of healthy, resilient forests in Scotland.

The wider public value of more woodland cover is also clear.

It reduces biodiversity loss, improves economic activity, and supports long-term community engagement and wealth building. These can be powerful enablers for woodland creation.

And of course, there is significant economic benefit which attaches for rural and island communities, not least in the supply chain, in jobs and businesses. That also helps contribute to our need to encourage people to stay and move to rural areas too.

We have made great strides already and it is perhaps worth remembering how far we have come on our woodland creation journey so far.

Scotland’s woodland creation journey

It is easy to forget that in 2009, Scotland saw less than 2,000 hectares of woodland creation a year. Yet over the following 10 years, by 2018, we had increased that to over 10,000 hectares.

Indeed, this year, as I’ve just announced, Scottish Forestry has granted approvals for over 13,000 hectares of woodland creation, with nearly 3,500 hectares already planted.

Within the government we’ve also delivered many of the MacKinnon Review recommendations to better support delivery, and we continue to work with our partners to improve the woodland development process.

Over the past year we’ve enhanced the Forestry Grant Scheme by increasing the payment rates for riparian woodland, natural regeneration, deer control, agroforestry, and for the first 40 hectares of woodland.

We’ve also made £1 million of funding available to help restore and expand Scotland’s rainforest and have more than tripled the grant rate for controlling bracken.

Last week I was pleased to announce a 20% increase in a range of Forestry Grant Scheme options for smaller-scale applications to help with inflation.

The new measures I’ve outlined today will also benefit the farming and crofting communities.

We know farmers are interested in integrating trees into their businesses. In fact, around half of all new applications are from smaller schemes, mostly linked with small agricultural businesses. That focus on small scale agroforestry as our farmers and crofters move towards sustainable and regenerative agriculture is important on a number of levels.

I’m delighted that farmers and crofters are taking advantage of growing trees, but we also need to ensure our wider woodland expansion plans are carried out sensitively and collectively with the agricultural community.

Work is ongoing to strengthen relationships with farmers and crofters and I want to see more of this in the future.

Budget for 2024/25

You’ll be aware that the Scottish Government is working through its annual budget position, and you’ll appreciate the financial challenges faced by government at this time.

In fact, for 2024-25, Scotland faces the most challenging budget settlement since devolution due to sustained high inflation following the mini budget, a UK Government autumn statement that failed to deliver the investment needed in Scotland's public services and of course Brexit – which continues to damage our rural industries, including forestry.

My portfolio has responsibility for delivering a number of statutory obligations and of course forestry is part of these.

Sometimes there are no easy decisions in this space but the Scottish Government knows how important forestry is to meeting its priorities.

Other actions to support woodland creation

We are working hard to provide the right framework and financial incentives to boost woodland growth but let me be clear - government funding alone is not the solution.

We must explore how else we can achieve better outcomes together and what will enable progress.

Increasing skills across the sector

A shortage of skilled staff is recognised as one of the factors limiting the rate of woodland creation.

Different parts of the sector are experiencing their own bottlenecks, so I am pleased to see that many key stakeholders are already stepping forward to address their skill shortages.

Forestry Journal: Ms Gougeon also confirmed that a record level of woodland creation applications had been approved Ms Gougeon also confirmed that a record level of woodland creation applications had been approved (Image: Supplied)

The Scottish Government has invested up to £1 million in a comprehensive skills training programme for Scottish Forestry front-line staff.

Our two forestry agencies have developed their induction and training programmes, and Confor are creating a technical training hub focussed on advanced operational skills.

The larger companies continue to offer graduate training programmes, and most recently, companies and individuals have come together to support workshops organised by the Royal Scottish Forestry Society.

A summary of these and other initiatives has been circulated in advance of the summit for your information and I’d like to thank you all for playing a part in addressing the skills shortage.

Meaningful engagement with stakeholders and communities

Despite all the positive reasons for woodland creation, there is no shying away from the fact that it can reveal competing tensions.

Delivering sustainable forest management must involve not only planting the right tree in the right place, but also engaging meaningfully with the right stakeholders at the right time, including regulators, local interests and communities.

With woodland creation required at scale and pace, this engagement is more important than ever.

I know there are concerns from both industry and communities that this engagement doesn’t always meet expectations or support effective delivery.

I’m pleased to say that we are taking action to help alleviate these concerns. In June, we published refreshed guidance to help communities better understand the process for woodland creation applications, and the engagement and consultation opportunities within it.

We’ve also supported Confor to develop new training for the industry on engaging stakeholders, and I thank Confor for its proactive approach.

I would encourage all of you and your staff to attend these sessions as part of your Continued Professional Development.

Working together – next steps

I’ve shown here how, by working together, we can maximise the impact of our funding and efforts.

Today’s summit will explore what you believe are the barriers to higher woodland creation rates, and what additional actions could be taken.

We must listen to and respect different perspectives while working towards a common goal.

The leadership and visibility of the improvements which are already in progress is vital.