It was the news nobody in forestry expected. Announced just days before Christmas, a £32 million budget cut to the woodland creation purse in Scotland has been described as a “body blow” to the industry. In a special Voices of Forestry column, Confor’s Stuart Goodall gives his take. 

THE announcement on 19 December of the Scottish Government’s savage cut to the forestry budget for 2024–25 came as a nasty surprise across both the public and private sectors. Though cabinet secretary Mairi Gougeon had warned that finances were under pressure at the Woodland Creation Summit the week before, there was no sense that the budget could be slashed so deeply.

The context behind this decision, as we’ve been given to understand, is that the Scottish Government had to save money somewhere and areas such as health, education and justice were protected from the majority of cuts.

Unfortunately, years of missed planting targets left the forestry budget exposed as an easy, if undeserving, target.

As an industry, we obviously understand financial pressure. Confor recognises that public funding is tight and there are many calls on the public purse. If the budget for next year had been trimmed but still provided funding for a realistic level of around 13,000–14,000 hectares of planting, then that would have been difficult to argue against.


However, Ms Gougeon has advised that the available funding could support as little as 9,000 ha – hardly more than the disappointing 8,190 ha figure reported for 2022/23. The previous 18,000 ha target for 2024/25 has now been branded as unattainable.

If additional funding isn’t found, then this will be a major blow to the sector. After many years of planting rising and then falling, nurseries have been actively encouraged and even financially incentivised to plan for rising levels of planting – millions of young plants now face being destroyed. That’s to say nothing of the many other businesses and workers involved in woodland creation who will be affected by a sudden lack of financial support.

Confor is lobbying hard for additional funding, and we have partnered with Woodland Trust Scotland to raise public awareness of the impact these cuts will have on all aspects of forestry. We have already secured coverage across print and television media and have worked with our members to contact MSPs across Scotland about the industry’s concerns. Further activity is planned, and we hope to keep momentum.

Last month, the cabinet secretary was challenged in a Holyrood committee to respond to our comments directly. Ms Gougeon acknowledged the situation was “particularly disappointing” and stressed the importance of working to maximise planting in the current season.

There is indeed work to do in this financial year. We are liaising with Scottish Forestry (SF) to try to get as much planting in the ground and paid for within the current budgetary cycle. SF is responding constructively, and I hope we will be able to maximise the number of projects that are funded in the 2023/24 planting season.

The money is there.

Forestry Journal: Mairi Gougeon has blamed the budget cut on Brexit and Westminster Mairi Gougeon has blamed the budget cut on Brexit and Westminster (Image: Alan Peebles)

If further funding isn’t found, and significantly more planting than 9,000 ha doesn’t take place next year, it’s difficult to see how businesses and confidence in planting in Scotland will not be damaged. The industry will be feeling the ramifications of this for years to come, and the government’s planting targets face being holed below the waterline for many years.

A lack of available funding will encourage companies to look elsewhere – to other parts of the UK, or in the case of investors, overseas. UK ministers and the Forestry Commission have worked hard to persuade the sector that England is ‘open for business’. The Welsh government is also determined to drive up planting and both countries want to produce more home-grown wood for use in sectors like house-building.

The Scottish Government has trumpeted its ‘world leading’ net-zero target and First Minister Humza Yousaf and former forestry minister Mairi McAllan travelled to COP28 just a few weeks ago. Slashing the contribution that tree planting makes will be a body blow to achieving that target.

For many years, I have spoken to British ministers and officials and held up Scotland as an example that they should follow. Those countries are now catching up, and Scotland needs to get back on track. The next few months will be crucial to see what happens.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.