WELL before world leaders headed to Glasgow for November’s COP26, the Scottish Government, along with the rest of the UK, had already committed to some very ambitious tree-planting targets.
Unlike England and Wales, however, which are going to have a Herculean task in front of them to meet their planting targets, Alan Hampson, head of policy and practice at Scottish Forestry points out that Scotland is well on its way to achieving its goal.
“We are committed to planting 18,000 hectares a year by 2025 here in Scotland. To achieve this, we need to plant an additional 1,500 hectares each year, above what we planted in the previous year. That is an achievable goal,” he notes.
Scottish Forestry is the government body in Scotland responsible for policy, support and regulation as far as woodlands, commercial forestry and woodland planting is concerned. It works in partnership with industry and with environmental and social interests to deliver the Scottish Forest Strategy, and to realise the government’s wider goals and objectives where forestry is concerned.
“We are very much on the policy and incentive side. The forests themselves are managed, where they are state-owned, by Forestry and Land Scotland, and we work in partnership with them,” he explains.
The Scottish Climate Change policy update last December set an interim target for the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030, on the way to achieving net zero by 2045.
As Hampson notes, Scotland’s forests have a key role to play in achieving this target. Even at current planting levels, Scotland’s forests already sequester about 10% of Scotland’s total annual emissions, he says.
“The Forest Strategy focuses on achieving the best balance between three broad outcomes,” he comments, namely environmental, economic and social outcomes. The three policy areas overlap each other in complex ways. How this works can be seen by looking, for instance, at how campaigns to restore much of Scotland’s original primary forests interact with the other objectives.
“If you look at everything from the standpoint of restoring our natural forests and maximising biodiversity, that’s fine, but the natural forests are much slower growing than conifer forests, so can take twice as long to sequester as much carbon as you would by planting fast growing conifers like Sitka spruce, which also produces a great commercial timber crop,” he explains.
So there is an obvious trade-off to be made here. If you move the needle more towards broadleaf planting and biodiversity, you have to take a hit on the carbon sequestration front. These are the kinds of policy decisions that have to be made, ultimately, by government taking best advice and forming a view.
“On the commercial side, Scotland’s sustainably managed conifer woodlands are hugely important. We produce 7.8 million cubic metres of softwood logs every year for the construction sector. If all of that was loaded onto a train, the train would be over a thousand miles long,” he notes.
Not only does the timber continue to lock up the sequestered carbon for the lifespan of the houses it goes on to form part of, there is also a tremendous substitution benefit. The timber replaces more traditional building materials such as steel and concrete.
“If you look at domestic house starts in the UK, the construction sector currently has a target of building 300,000 new home starts a year. If all of these newbuilds maximised the use of timber, such as the timber house that was displayed at COP26, we would save the best part of two million tonnes of carbon a year,” he comments.
Clearly, the more of our own locally grown timber we use, the less we are exporting the externalities of timber production to other countries.
“The bulk of the world’s timber still comes from natural forests, so producing as much timber as we can in the UK helps in a small way to prevent deforestation elsewhere around the world,” he notes.
Although huge areas of forest in a number of countries, from California to Greece, have been devastated by raging forest fires, fire remains a low risk for Scotland, thanks to our damp climate. Droughts happen, but they are rare.
“The main risk for trees in Scotland is that the warming climate causes more stress in trees, making them more susceptible to pests and diseases. This is why good tree health and good sustainable forest management is so important,” Hampson notes.
One of the main causes for trees becoming stressed is when unsuitable species are planted on unsuitable ground.
“Again, this is taken care of through having a proper planning and approvals process for new forest plantings. Measures to help improve the resilience of our forests are being considered as part of the current review of the UK Forestry Standard, the technical standard for the forest management throughout the UK.
Tree diseases can be devastating, as we have already seen with larch disease and ash dieback disease. Larch disease is caused by a fungus-like organism known as Phytophthora ramorum, which can also attack beech and chestnut trees.
“The public needs to take care to ensure that we are not moving pests and diseases around the countryside on our boots, car and bike tyres, and pets’ paws. Everyone can help by being very vigilant about cleaning boots, tyres and paws before they visit the woods,” he notes.
Scottish Forestry has a small team of people who regularly go round the country’s forests, checking on tree health and biodiversity, and keeping an eye on tree diseases.