I own a substantial volume of the complete works of Robert Burns which, according to the little label on the flysheet, was purchased at Burns Cottage, Alloway.

I spent a formative period of my career organising the planting of many banks and braes in Dumfries and Galloway. For this reason, and indeed in response to Burns’s genius and feel for the region in which he both farmed and wrote, I have a lasting affection for both the poet and that favoured part of south-west Scotland where I helped change the economy and landscape 40 years ago. This takes the form of half-remembered snippets, some now part of the language, some – like ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and the discourse between ‘The Twa Dogs’ – a constant source of delight.

Burns’s ability to cut through hypocrisy and identify with the rural poor – in ‘A Cotter’s Saturday Night’, for good example – still resonated when I spent my time on land acquisition. You got to know the people, the community, the culture... But of all the legion of Burns quotations, I like the one which concludes:

“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us,

To see oursels as ithers see us.”

This bit of poetic philosophy sprang to mind as I read James Ogilvie’s entertaining booklet, Brief History of the Forestry Commission, itself a commission by the Royal Scottish Forestry Society.

READ MORE: Forester's diary: Owls and sleepless nights

The story of the Commish is one of light and shade, where a response to the problems bequeathed by WWI (a conflict almost lost, remember, for lack of available imported and home-grown timber) demanded a clear plan of action. This progressed at an astonishing rate, largely because of the availability of suitable planting land and a new perspective on exotic species. But within the first two decades of its existence, the Commish faced first economic problems in the form of what we all now call austerity, and the distant rumblings of those who came to oppose coniferous afforestation.

The FC, recovering, became the nation’s largest landowner. It built forest villages to solve the ever-present problem of available labour. And, often forgotten or ignored by critics, it was the inventor of the Dedication scheme which did more to restock depredations in the private sector of the 1939–45 conflict, much of them in its own woodlands and plantations planted in the 1920s.

After the war, the state dominated the scene. But it began to experience opposition to its activities and attitudes. Your diarist can remember when signs forbidding public access were on the gates of all FC woods. Jump forward half a century and that lifeline to the private sector, the Dedication scheme, had been swept away. New planting was now in the hands of a private sector fuelled by the famous Schedule D, and the influence of outside critics, from ornithologists to ramblers, grew apace.

The Forestry Commission and indeed the whole industry started to attract not praise and admiration for what it had achieved, but opprobrium for what was seen to be environmental vandalism. And it is certainly true that the Forestry Commission has one lasting failure, over the years. It has always looked for the soft answer to its critics which turneth away wrath. It’s still a gang of civil servants tasked with avoiding controversy or, as of now, pretending to aspire towards targets which are clearly unrealistic.

Just as a clear objective for new planting in part of the climate change response has emerged, the FC has split itself in two (or is it three or four?) in the cause of devolution, raising the whole question of what, outside of Scotland, is it for?

Look, the whole edifice now needs a rethink. Top of the agenda must be attention to image. It needs to put press relations first. See itself as others see it.

In the face of catastrophic floods in Europe, the state now must intervene, take back its practical role and either properly incentivise a private sector or do the planting itself. But it will need a complete change of heart and attitude, far from the current inertia we all experience from its so-called leaders.

We need to get the right people in the right places. The trees will inevitably follow.

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