Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, John Clegg, veteran forestry expert with Tustins, looks back at the mistakes of the past, and wonders if we’ve really learned from them when it comes to planting trees. 

MY colleague Mike Tustin’s recent depressing comments on the substantial sums likely to be lost from the UK forestry sector (Forestry Journal issue 335, July 2022) prompted me to think back to the ‘bad old days’ when the forestry sector was – again – criticised for failing to meet government planting targets/aspirations.

Mike commented that substantial investment in new woodlands may be lost due to the complicated and time-consuming system imposed by the UK and Welsh governments. He noted there was a strong demand for land for new woodland creation, but dealing with the relevant government departments in England and Wales was holding up the process. 

“While new woodland creation is strongly promoted by the English and Welsh governments, very little land with consent to plant becomes available, principally due to the time-consuming and expensive processes involved in obtaining the required permission from what are effectively divisions of those same governments. There is considerable money seeking to create substantial areas of new woodland at present and if it cannot be readily invested it will find a suitable home elsewhere which would be a sad loss to the forestry sector.”

Looking back at my former company’s 1987 Review is startling. What we said then was: 

Planters have had a difficult year. Someone did get round, finally, to telling the Ministry’s field staff that all was not well in the agricultural sector, and the rigidity of the DAFS guidelines on clearance of land for planting was finally officially relaxed early in the year. 

There is now a presumption in favour of forestry on Grade IV and some Grade III land, but this came too late for the 1986 planting season. Land was in short supply, with prices rising in the better areas to over £300 per acre. As usual, the industry battled through and delivered the goods, but it was not a season to be relished. The total area planted fell well short of 25,000 hectares, even shorter of the national target of 30,000 ha. 

Over the summer and autumn there was evidence of better-quality land coming to the market, and investors could become more selective and price conscious. 
Planters for 1987 have enjoyed a fair choice in Scotland. In Wales they had little or no choice at all. 

One well-known Welsh forester remarked that large-scale planting in the principality, which means over 250 acres, is a thing of the past, so all-embracing have become the objections. Uplands which are not commons, national parks, SSSIs, AONBs or ESAs are sure to be protected by the requirements of water catchment or the county planning officer. This continues to be the case. 

However, as the margins of profitability in the hills continue to decline, pressure for forestry to fill the resulting economic space can be expected to grow, and there will be continuing disputes everywhere, but perhaps especially in Wales. This is a pity as the benefits of the UPM mill at Shotton are having a very obvious impact on the Welsh timber economy. If ever there was a time to proclaim the benefits of forestry in Wales, then this is surely that time.

NB. Figures for the financial year 2021/22 show under 14,000 hectares were planted, with three quarters of this in Scotland.

35 years on and what has really changed? The authorities tell us they want more trees, but give no indication of where we can plant them. The process to obtain consent to plant is more complex and therefore more time-consuming and expensive.
We hear the benefits of forestry stressed time and again. How great it will be to capture carbon! Conifers grow vastly more swiftly than broadleaves, sequestering carbon very efficiently. We grow excellent conifers in the UK with the mature trees being used in construction etc, to lock away the carbon. 

The softwood sector plays a major part in the UK economy. We’re encouraged to plant broadleaves, but to what purpose? Can the UK grow viable broadleaves with grey squirrels present? It’s generally depressing walking through broadleaves under 35 years of age. Extensive squirrel damage means we will be producing firewood and chip wood. Carbon sequestration? I don’t think so!

Having worked in the UK forestry sector for nearly 40 years, I have seen the bleak years for forestry creation between the abolition of Schedule D tax relief in 1987 and the UK government’s new-found ‘support’ for new woodlands in recent years. I had hoped to see an exciting new era of woodland creation which would benefit the UK economy.

However, in conclusion I’m drawn to comments we made in 1983: 

READ MORE: Voice from the Woods September 2022: American Loggers and pride in the job

Not being either eager or anxious to get ‘two lovely black eyes’ we normally echo the words of the old-time music-hall song and “never on politics scream and shout”. However, this year we will risk to venture a cautious view. It is hard to dispute the idea that in a mixed economy the role of government is to create a framework within which business can develop. The current idea that you then, as far as possible, leave business to get on with it is, perhaps, novel. So far as the forestry industry is concerned, it seems not to be working. 
DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or of Forestry Journal.