A RECENT report that called for commercial conifer plantations to lose access to public cash in Scotland has been criticised as having a “shallow understanding of the industry”.

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. 

In the wake of the publication of the report – the conclusion to an enquiry launched in October 2022 – key figures in forestry criticised its conclusions, especially its apparent insistence that the UK could continue to rely on imported timber. However, some said it was time to have a "proper discussion" about subsidies in the sector. 

Now, Confor has published a detailed criticism of the document, which includes responses from a number of academics. The industry body says the newly-gathered evidence shows “significant weaknesses in the methodology underpinning the RSE report and an apparent selective use of information to present quite opposite conclusions to those presented in the quoted evidence”.

Among those to contribute to the sector response was Professor John Healey from forest sciences at Bangor University.

He wrote: “The report appears to be based on a combination of information extracted from the submitted responses to the consultation, supported by selected findings from published literature. The methods adopted to search for and select the cited publications is very unclear.

Forestry Journal: Professor John Healey was among those to criticise the RSE’s methodology.Professor John Healey was among those to criticise the RSE’s methodology. (Image: Stock)

“In only a few cases does the report quote the actual quantitative evidence provided by the cited research studies, or the important context or caveats that are attached to their findings.”

Dr Morwenna Spear (Bangor University), Dr Andrew Cameron (University of Aberdeen) and Dr Dan Ridley-Ellis (Edinburgh Napier) also contributed to the Confor response. 

Dr Ridley-Ellis wrote: “The RSE dismisses the premise that the UK should reduce its reliance on timber imports to help limit our contribution to damage and loss of the world’s natural forests. It does so with a very Panglossian view that all is okay because we import from countries with ‘good environmental standards’ (without explaining how, or if, these countries avoid the problems it outlines for the UK – or how the countries we import wood products from might be importing the wood they use from other countries).”

Dr Spear added: “In the case of the timber industry, and the storage of carbon in harvested wood products, it appears to have had access to relatively limited information, and therefore arrives at a relatively shallow understanding of the industry.”

Professor Ian Wall, chair of the inquiry that wrote the report, said: “Confor draws attention to four respondents who take issue with some points within the RSE’s Report, but do not undermine its conclusion that public money spent on tree planting will bring more benefits to carbon sequestration, biodiversity and rural life if spent on mixed native tree planting for the long term, rather than commercial conifer planting.

Forestry Journal: Professor Ian Wall defended the report in the wake of the criticism Professor Ian Wall defended the report in the wake of the criticism (Image: FJ/John McNee)

“It is an objective and critical appraisal of the extent to which the substantial public subsidy, and 100 per cent tax exemptions on profits, currently given to landowners for mass conifer planting are still justified. It concludes that they are not.

“The claim that the report will undermine efforts by the Scottish Government, industry, and academia to promote sustainable wood use and combat damaging climate change is unfounded."