WHEN Forest Research published its annual woodland-creation statistics for the UK in June, the reaction was, understandably, scathing. For the umpteenth time, the country had missed its planting target and missed it by a lot. The kind of miss that would have ended up on some dodgy football gaffes VHS of the 1990s (younger readers can ask their parents). 

By now you'll have seen that the headline figure revealed just 12,960 hectares of woodland were created in the 12 months prior to the end of March 2023, the lowest level for five years. While there was some cause for optimism with England and Wales substantially increasing their planting (the latter doubling 2022's total), Scotland's performance was particularly concerning, falling below 10,000 hectares. An emergency forestry summit has already been called in the wake of the research to try to address the alarming slump north of the border. 

READ MORE: Emergency forestry summit will be held in wake of planting rates

Scratch below the surface a little and there is one other telling statistics from the annual results. For the second year running, broadleave planting outdid conifers, with only Scotland reporting the opposite. Its 5,530 ha of conifers made up made up nearly 90 per cent of the UK's 6,330 ha total, which fell short of the 6,630 ha worth of broadleave planting across all four nations.

Should this surprise us? As any forester will tell you, it would be easier to convince the public at large to chop off their own arms than embrace conifers. Time and time again, we have seen broadleaves spoken about in glowing terms, whereas Douglas fir et al have been viewed as something akin to the devil. Just last year, it took a former forestry secretary to speak up of the benefits of Sitka spruce when well-meaning MSPs continually demanded Scotland turns its attention to native species* instead. 

The forestry industry is making the right noises. In a strikingly robust speech, Forestry Commission chief executive Richard Stanford spoke last year of the need to end the "dogma" around them, even touching on the environmental benefits they can bring to a variety of species (something usually used as a stick with which to beat them with). Confor's Stuart Goodall has done the same. 

But the statistics would suggest conifers are out, broadleaves are in. One year can easily be dismissed as an outlier. Two in a row might even raise an eyebrow. If we get to three and beyond, then it's a trend and one which will have ramifications not much further down the line. 

Forestry Journal: Richard Stanford has vociferously defended the use of conifers Richard Stanford has vociferously defended the use of conifers (Image: Supplied)

In recent weeks, market research has shown that softwood imports – ie the wood from conifers – have continued to grow. This at a time when the UK remains the world's second largest net importer of timber, with 80 per cent of all wood used in the country coming from abroad. Unless planting levels of all species increases and increases fast, this isn't going to change; and that's before you get into the fact that the countries where we get our wood from are beginning to experience their own shortages. 

READ MORE: SNP's Fergus Ewing defends use of Sitka spruce in Scottish forestry

Maybe a continued planting focus on broadleaves will be a good thing. The UK's hardwood market has been described as a pretty non-existent, and this could go someway to addressing that. We'll just need to check back in in 40 years' time to see the state of play. 

Until then, let's all agree on one thing. Whether it's oak, sycamore, Scots pine, or Sitka spruce, we need to put more trees in the ground and we need to do it now. 

*Yes, yes, we hear you. What's native and what's not? 

This piece is an extract from our Forestry Latest News newsletter, which is emailed out at 4PM every Friday with a round-up of the week's top stories. 

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