FORESTRY bosses have hit back at claims that a new 700-hectare plantation will have a detrimental effect on one of Scotland's most famous country walks. 

Officials say detailed environmental impact assessments and community consultations were held ahead of giving the greenlight to the planned coniferous woodland surrounding the John Buchan Way near Peebles in the Scottish Borders.

The rebuttal comes as local campaigners bid to raise £35,000 to fund a legal challenge to the creation of the dominantly Sitka spruce plantation, arguing that Scottish Forestry (SF) has fallen foul of the law by failing to carry out an environmental impact assessment into the long-term effect on local moorland and wildlife. This has been disputed by SF chiefs, who say they have rigorously assessed the site to ensure it complies with the UK Forestry Standard. 

A SF spokesperson said: "With significant projects such as this one, detailed consideration of the potential for any significant environmental impacts, in line with the Forestry Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations Scotland 2017, are undertaken.

"In this case a number of environmental factors were thoroughly examined including the landscape, National and local Scenic Area designations, public access, private water supplies, biodiversity including black grouse, eagles, ospreys and groundwater terrestrial ecosystems.

"Issues such as deep peat, timber transport and heritage interests, including scheduled ancient monuments, and cumulative impact, were also all carefully considered and we reached the conclusion that no significant impacts were likely. 

"Scottish Forestry also undertook a Habitat Regulations Assessment as part of the assessment process. This woodland proposal was agreed last year after due diligence was carried out by the applicant, which involved consultation with local stakeholders.

Forestry Journal: Campaigners say the plantation would have a detrimental effect on the John Buchan WayCampaigners say the plantation would have a detrimental effect on the John Buchan Way (Image: NQ/Stock)

“Scottish Forestry also carried out its own 28-day public consultation period and subsequent to this worked with the applicant to make further changes, which included more native broadleaves and a reduction of the size of conifer species within the National Scenic Area. 

"After working with four different landscape architects and a number of statutory consultees, we are satisfied that that the applicant’s forest design proposals, which was significantly altered during the process, met the requirements for the woodland scheme to proceed."

The Stobo Residents Action Group (SRAG) has so far raised £10,000 towards the total needed to mount a challenge at the Court of Session in Edinburgh to the transformation of a designated national scenic area.

The 13-mile long trail between Peebles and Broughton was created 21 years ago in honour of John Buchan, the writer of the spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. Buchan, born in Perth in 1875, had extensive connections to the area, and his brother Walter served as town clerk in Peebles.

Campaigners say they have unearthed emails which show the SF "ignored" objections raised by NatureScot about the proposals, and argue coniferous plantations will provide little environmental benefit. Concerns from the wider public around Sitka spruce are nothing new, and forestry officials have pointed to independent research that suggests fast-growing conifers soak up more carbon in the short term than broadleaved species. But in the long term the difference becomes much more negligible. 

The proposed plantation comes at a time of falling woodland-creation rates in Scotland. The UK also remains the world's third largest net importer of wood in the world, with 81 per cent of its timber coming from abroad. 

In responding to the claim that conifers offer little to climate change, the SF spokesperson added: "The expansion of new woodlands and forests in Scotland is vital if we are to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss – these are the two biggest crises affecting the planet.

 “Conifers are vital to tackling climate change, as the latest scientific research has found that they soak up CO2 at a faster rate than broadleaves, it is only much later, usually 100 years, that a broadleaf tree would catch up.

"The timber obtained from domestic forestry does not require to be imported to Scotland, with the associated environmental issues, and further locks up that carbon for the lifetime of the product.

"Our goal is to create a mixture of conifer and broadleaf forests in Scotland and new UK wide rules were recently agreed to ensure more diversity of species is grown across the country.”

The dispute over the plantation comes in a period where large-scale productive forestry finds itself facing criticism from several influential Scottish stakeholders. This includes the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), which recently concluded that coniferous plantations should lose access to public cash north of the border

A spokesperson for SRAG said: “We find it unacceptable that the alleged climate benefits of this development are being overstated in order that commercial interests can benefit by completely overriding the public good and biodiversity concerns.  

“A commercial plantation in this National Scenic Area (NSA), with its associated infrastructure requirements, and which will be felled in 30 years, will simply destroy large areas of semi natural habitats already storing carbon with questionable climate benefits. 

“We support the findings in a recent report by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which stated that: '… conifer forests, often planted as monocultures, do too little to combat climate change and deliver relatively few benefits compared with native, broadleaf woodland'.”