FORESTRY figures have united to condemn a report that called for commercial conifer plantations to lose access to public money in Scotland. 

Academics at 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. 

The report also appeared to suggest that the UK's reliance on imported timber – 81 per cent of the nation's wood comes from abroad – was fine, so long as the product came from a certified source. 

In the wake of the document's publication – which brought to an end an inquiry launched in October 2022 – forestry leaders have reacted with anger, saying the suggestion of ending subsidies for one of Scotland's most vital sectors would be a "devastating blow". 

Jon Lambert, partner of GOLDCREST Land & Forestry, said: “I am appalled and greatly concerned to see the outcome of this report. As a chartered surveyor who has been involved in the creation of forests, their management and the sale and purchase of both land and existing forestry for several decades, I believe this would be a devastating blow to the industry.

“It is clear that all government departments are financially stretched and spending money wisely and prudently is of course of paramount importance. It is about spending money wisely. However, it is a well-documented fact that the UK imports 81 per cent of its commercial timber, of which 75 per cent is required for housing construction. There is an urgent need to create more timber but there is a disconnect between the public desire for wood-based products and the public perception of commercial plantations.

Forestry Journal: Jon Lambert said he was appalled by the report Jon Lambert said he was appalled by the report (Image: Supplied)

“I have had several conversations with investors keen to purchase land for the creation of commercial forestry and timber production in the last couple of months. However, they have made it clear that it appears Scotland no longer wants this business and they are now only looking for opportunities in England and Wales." 

He added: “The report is already out of date. It talks about escalating land prices because of tree planting but the reality is that the hill land which is suitable for tree planting is 30 per cent cheaper now that it was 18 months ago. The report also states that commercial forest plantations tend to be monocultures which simply is not true. When planting, we are only allowed a maximum of 65 per cent of any one species.”

The RSE report found that:

  • In Scotland, ministers have subsidised forestry by more than £390 million 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”.

Scottish Forestry (SF) earlier hit back at the report's authors, saying the government agency was not involved in its creation, despite offering to contribute. SF also reiterated its support for conifer and broadleaf planting. 

The report was aided by evidence from 45 public responses, both from individuals (such as Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University) and organisations like the James Hutton Institute. 

Confor, the industry body for forestry, also submitted to the report, and said it was "surprised" by the final document. 

A statement read: “Confor is surprised and deeply disappointed by the report issued by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Confor provided a response to the consultation which included links to evidence on trees and climate change and on biodiversity. All of that input appears to have been ignored.

“In terms of carbon the most comprehensive evidence is provided by Forest Research and its conclusions are clear – it is fast growing conifers that will deliver far greater carbon benefits by 2050, the key target for international climate change efforts, and on to the end of this century.

“In contrast to the assertions made by the RSE, modern multi-purpose forests contain a variety of species and provide valued places for people and wildlife, and crucially those opportunities are maintained because the forests remain managed – paid for by the income from sales of wood.

Forestry Journal: Forestry figures pointed to research that suggests fast-growing conifers soak up more carbon that broadleaves in the short term as evidence of the benefits of softwood planting Forestry figures pointed to research that suggests fast-growing conifers soak up more carbon that broadleaves in the short term as evidence of the benefits of softwood planting (Image: Stock)

“Government support for the industry is a recognition of the multiple public goods a thriving productive forest sector provides. These also include jobs and economic activity across the country, particularly in rural communities." 

Simon Ritchie, policy and advocacy manager for Woodland Trust Scotland, welcomed the report but insisted it was important the country had a strong commercial forestry sector. 

He added: "Scotland has plenty of land for both native woodland and for commercial softwood. Indeed, we need both.

"How schemes are funded up front may well need to be reviewed in the context of falling public grant funding, but it is best for Scotland to have a strong forestry sector with a mix of commercial and conservation management." 

Professor Ian Wall, who chaired the group behind the report, said: "The health of the population, and the health of the planet, is reliant on a robust, biologically diverse environment. The role of trees – the right trees in the right place – in improving biodiversity, carbon-capture, and wellbeing in both urban and rural environments cannot be overstated.

"That is why the main recommendation of the report, is that subsidies for commercial forestry, which are poorer at delivering these needs should be redirected to long term, mixed native tree planting and other benefits." 

You can view the full report here.