Why is it that almost everyone seems scared of talking up the timber-producing potential and profile of Sitka spruce when faced with calls to reduce planting?

FOR its comparatively small size, the UK forestry industry generates a huge amount of news, which Forestry Journal is adept at gathering and publishing. My only problem is developing a system of saving the information for use at a later date when an opportunity arises. Having apparently cracked the conundrum, I was able to make good use of a news item published one year ago, in the December 2022 issue (‘Former minister defends use of Sitka spruce’, FJ 340). 

The article featured statements made by Fergus Ewing, ex-minister in the Scottish Parliament, in support of Sitka spruce, the very species of conifer at the heart of Scotland’s tree-planting renaissance and the reason why the UK’s overall tree-planting figures have not fallen through the ice and into the depths of dark despair. 

I understand Mr Ewing was instrumental in Scotland’s successful tree-planting comeback during his previous cabinet post, which included a forestry brief. Among those organisations paying tribute to his support of forestry while in government were Confor and the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

Forestry Journal: Fergus EwingFergus Ewing (Image: PA) 

However, there is something which the SNP MSP said (or rather didn’t say) which I could not quite square with a man who has clearly contributed so much to contemporary commercial forestry in Scotland and the UK as a whole.

Speaking in a Scottish parliamentary debate in November 2022, the ex-minister put forward an impassioned defence of Sitka spruce to counter calls from other parliamentarians, including Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba, essentially calling for a reduction in the planting of conifers in Scotland. At that time the proportion of conifers in new tree plantings in the country was 60 per cent. Ms Villalba said: “We are calling for at least 50 per cent of tree-cover expansion in Scotland to comprise native species [i.e. broadleaves], given that native tree species provide habitats for our native wildlife.” 

Mr Ewing said: “We need to maintain and not reduce the current proportion of 60 per cent of new plantings being commercial.”

In the very same issue of Forestry Journal, Confor called for a 50/50 conifers/broadleaves split in new planting – hopefully for the entire UK and not just Scotland, although the news item did not exactly specify. Even so, you would expect the main trade body for commercial forestry in UK to pitch significantly higher for softwood-producing conifers. 

The discourse was apparently in response to a report published by Forest Research, which found that fast-growing conifer trees soak up and sequester higher levels of carbon dioxide than do broadleaves in the shorter term (up to 50 years), although as usual there was a sting in the tale. The difference shrinks to negligible amounts in the longer term, with broadleaf woodlands matching some variations on conifers over the 100-year time-frame.

What I find strange is that according to the aforementioned news item in Forestry Journal, Mr Ewing cited the carbon-capture capacity of Sitka spruce as the reason for supporting the continued high planting rates of conifers. So why did he, of all people, an arch supporter and defender of Sitka spruce and the part it plays in commercial forestry, not use the tree’s unrivalled timber-producing profile and potential to argue his case?

Under suitable conditions, grown in the UK, Sitka spruce lays down wood and generates timber faster than any other conifer and of course any broadleaf, native or otherwise. Indeed, Sitka’s carbon-capture credentials are a function of this. And while on the subject of the Forest Research report, it should be pointed out that comparing conifers (especially Sitka spruce) with broadleaves over a 100-year period is inappropriate if not irrelevant. Sitka spruce is grown commercially precisely because it matures ‘timber-wise’ within 50 years. If you want to compare the two in terms of carbon-capture you have to consider that two crops of Sitka spruce can be taken off the same land over that 100-year period. 

Factoring in this together with the closer spacing for conifers, then carbon sequestration of Sitka spruce will clearly outstrip any broadleaf tree on a unit area basis over that 100-year period. I recall reading a recent publication calling for more planting of oak in Scotland at the expense of conifers. This may well result in some amazing ancient oaks in 400 years’ time, but it’s worth remembering that eight crops of Sitka spruce could have been harvested from the landscape in the same time-frame.

READ MORE: Sitka spruce: Forestry leaders must work together to change attitudes

Why is it that almost everyone seems scared of talking about the timber-producing potential and profile of Sitka spruce when squaring up against the increasingly overwhelming calls for more broadleaves at the expense of conifers? You see it constantly, every time you pick up a newspaper or magazine, turn on the TV or read a government report or press release.

And you don’t have to go back very far to see how pressures on commercial conifer planting have been increasing. Forestry Journal’s top news feature in the August 2023 issue (‘'Little evidence’ of clear strategy for UK’s timber industry, inquiry finds’, FJ 348) presented a summary of the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) findings on the UK timber industry – and pretty damming stuff it was. 

Confor’s Stuart Goodall said: “Importantly it stresses what Confor has said for years: a sharp increase in timber production can be achieved at the same time as addressing the climate emergency and nature crisis.” Why not say ‘addressing the climate emergency and nature crisis can be achieved at the same time as a sharp increase in timber production’? 

Forestry Journal: Confor’s Stuart Goodall Confor’s Stuart Goodall

Coupled with a news item on a Forest Research poll, ‘Sobering fall in public support for providing the [Scottish forestry] sector with cash’, it made for truly terrible reading in FJ’s August 2023 issue. The poll found a large majority (81 per cent) of the public agreeing with at least one reason for injecting public cash into Scottish forestry but a tiny minority (15 per cent) for money to be spent on providing timber to sawmills and a disappointingly small minority (31 per cent) supporting doing so to reduce the country’s reliance on imported wood.

This reminds me of many instances I have heard about and witnessed when out and about with tree officers in the south of England. The public have their own perception of what woodland should look like and be used for.

Conifers are planted primarily for timber, pure and simple. And the faster the tree grows and lays down wood, the faster atmospheric carbon dioxide is sequestered.

Sitka spruce is top of the conifer class in this respect. Enhanced through conventional plant breeding, it is the fastest-growing conifer and, so far, resilient to pests and diseases. Sitka survives, indeed thrives in conditions not tolerated by other species, and is a comparatively low-maintenance timber tree.

Yet the dislike, often bordering on loathing, for plantation conifers outside of the forest fraternity is clear for all to see, with Sitka spruce number-one enemy in this respect. ‘Cosh the conifer’ articles will invariably call out Sitka spruce or simply spruce when the author can’t distinguish between species of the genus Picea. Anyone who doubts the level of antipathy towards conifers and Sitka in particular should take note of how climate activists, some dressed in traditional ‘Straw-Boy’ costume, pulled up recently-planted Sitka spruce seedlings in County Leitrim in Ireland. You can’t get much more hostile than that.