COMMERCIAL conifer plantations in Scotland should no longer benefit from public money, a group of academics has claimed. 

A report from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) said the tens of millions of pounds in subsidies given to the timber industry should instead be spent on "longer-living native forests", which, the document argued, have greater and clearer climate and biodiversity benefits. It said the Scottish and UK governments are wrong to claim that public subsidies are needed to help plant more, larger conifer forests. 

However, research from forestry experts has shown evidence that conifers store up to four times more carbon at a faster pace than slower-growing hardwood trees. The timber industry in Scotland supports 20,000 jobs and generates £800 million for the economy.

The RSE report found that:

  • In Scotland, ministers have subsidised forestry by more than £390 m over the last decade, with roughly 80 per cent of that spent on commercial conifer plantations, as well as extra subsidies for haulage.
  • Timber companies and landowners pay no corporation tax on their income from forests; profits from timber sales are tax-free; there is no capital gains tax on the value of the trees, and 100 per cent inheritance tax relief on the forestry property.
  • Forest owners were also able to sell carbon credits, adding to the attractiveness of forestry as an investment.
  • These grants, tax breaks and carbon credits had helped to substantially drive up land prices in Scotland, up by 73 per cent in a single year, greatly distorting the land market and pricing people out.
  • Government agencies are not properly enforcing policies which require environmental impact assessments on new forest projects; their approach is “inadequate” and “passive”.
  • The report also suggested that there is nothing inherently wrong with the UK importing timber, despite 80 per cent of its wood coming from abroad. 

However, Scottish Forestry has hit back at the report, saying its authors refused to engage with the government agency. 

A SF spokesman said: “We are disappointed that The Royal Society of Edinburgh did not engage with us on the production of this report, despite our offer. A copy of the report has not yet been shared with us but we will consider its findings carefully.

 “Scotland needs to continue growing a mixture of both productive species as well as native broadleaves if we are to tackle climate change and nature loss.

"Public forestry grants are a vital means to stimulating woodland creation and we will continue to support funding for both conifer and broadleaf planting.”

The RSE, Scotland’s national academy, said significant changes in government strategy were urgently needed at a time when governments are cutting public spending, including on nature recovery.

The report comes during a period of planting woe in Scotland, with woodland creation rates falling to their lowest levels in half a decade, according to the most recent annual statistics. The country is the only one of the UK's nations to plant more conifers than broadleaves. 

And just this week, the Scottish Government confirmed a £32 million budget cut to Woodland Creation projects north of the border

Forestry figures have come together to condemn the report's conclusions. Jon Lambert, partner of GOLDCREST Land & Forestry, said: “I am appalled and greatly concerned to see the outcome of this report.  I believe this would be a devastating blow to the industry." 

“Our scarce public funds must be used to maximise benefits for both the public and our environment,” said Prof Pat Monaghan, regius professor of zoology at the University of Glasgow and one of the report’s authors.

She said: “We now face the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. We must ensure that our investments in tree planting are done in ways that reduce our carbon emissions without reducing our precious and fragile biodiversity.”

The full report can be viewed here

This is a developing story. Forestry Journal will have more industry reaction to the report in the coming days.