Soil Carbon and Forestry Practice in Scotland: how do forest managers see it?
Forestry and its impacts on carbon cycles has never been higher profile, nor more political. Recent work by the Forest Policy Group focuses on two important areas: impacts of forestry on carbon storage in soils and ways to mitigate those impacts, and the experiences and views of practitioners. A new report by Anna Lawrence has just been published [ http://www.forestpolicygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Forest-stakeholders-perspectives-on-soil-carbon-practice.pdf ], exploring the perspectives of forest management stakeholders on forest operations in relation to soils and soil carbon.
Following standard social science methods, the report summarises detailed interviews with commercial forest managers, independent agents, public sector forest managers, contractors, regulators, and forestry membership bodies, about what they do and why they do it.
Practice, and the perspectives of stakeholders, are often poorly studied, and the report highlights the ways in which forest managers, contractors and regulators understand the situation. Note that the interviews were conducted before the finalisation of the new Cultivation for Upland Productive Woodland Creation Sites applicant’s guide
Some key points from the report
How is current practice adapting to concerns about soil carbon?
- Forest managers highlight the improvements in practice made since the 1980s, and many feel that they are still being judged on perceptions of what was done then.
- Ploughing is popular in the commercial forestry sector, and amongst older foresters, but not universally so.
- Ploughing is an issue for new woodland establishment, not for restock. However many practitioners feel that ground preparation for restock is as much of a concern as woodland establishment, and that practices around restock are overlooked and under-regulated.
- Some see harvesting and restock as an important opportunity to change from what is seen as ‘old-fashioned’ forestry to better methods, or even to move to peatland restoration.
- Contractors have an important and possibly overlooked role in innovating to make better practice possible. The spread of lower-impact mounding can be traced back to one or two individuals who designed suitable machinery for Scottish conditions.
What influences ideas of ‘good practice’?
- Professional culture plays a role in influencing ideas about what is acceptable practice, but it is also clear that there is a wide range of interpretations of what is acceptable. Public opinion plays much less of a role in influencing practice.
- The commercial sector emphasised the influence of clients on practice. Most highlighted the role of finance, and the drive to maximise return on investment. A few foresters indicated that clients are more sophisticated and that more carbon-friendly forest establishment is welcomed with minimal impact on financial returns over the full rotation.
How do foresters engage with science and other sources of information?
- Practitioners take a critical interest in the science of soil carbon in forestry.
- Most foresters trust their own experience and observation of results in the field more than scientific papers.
- Forest managers generally consider the current science to be incomplete in two ways: it has not yet taken into account the combined effects of forestry on soil and above-ground carbon; and it does not consider the cumulative effect over multiple rotations. Many feel that such approaches would support the case for ploughing and rapid initial growth.
How do stakeholders engage with policy and guidance on this issue?
- The UKFS is widely accepted and used as a reference point to support the view that current forestry practice is sustainable. However, regulators pointed to evidence that compliance with the UKFS is significantly lower than would be expected.
- Many are simply looking for timely and predictable application processes, and welcome transparent settled guidelines. A few feel that their own experience and knowledge is superior to that of regulators, and they should be allowed to vary ground preparation accordingly.
- Some in the commercial forestry sector see the regulatory sector as under-skilled and failing to stand together with colleagues across the profession. Many see Scottish Forestry in particular as underfunded and understaffed, and therefore unable to fulfil its role adequately.
FPG’s Wider Soil Carbon Project
This report forms part of a wider study. In 2020 the Pebble Trust* commissioned Forest Policy Group to conduct a study to inform policy makers and practitioners about the impacts of forest practice on soil carbon and how such impacts may be mitigated. The objectives include reviewing relevant science, particularly in relation to peaty organic soils; a study of current practices, knowledge and perspectives of forestry stakeholders; and an assessment of the legislative and policy tools available to shape practice. This joint summary report will provide an analytical approach, comparing opinions and practices with the current state of science, and with the direction of policy.
It’s important to read the Stakeholders’ Perspectives” report as one strand in the trio of science, policy and practice. Each informs and affects the other two. The full report has taken time as both science and policy moved faster than the research. But it is nearly here and in advance, we are sharing Anna Lawrence’s report on stakeholders’ perspectives.
*The Pebble Trust supports projects contributing to its vision of a more sustainable, equal and low-carbon society.