It’s time for those who are concerned about the real future of forests to take a stand. Fergus Ewing MSP (Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy) is consulting on the ‘Future of Forestry’; and while the deadline for formal submissions has now passed, the debate must continue as the Scottish Parliament will at some stage need to consider a draft Bill to complete the devolution of forestry to Scotland. The industry, led by big timber processors and the companies that service “forestry investors”, has enjoyed the limelight so far, but there remain important questions over the place of this sector in the shape of future forestry.
Ask anyone what they think of woodlands, and it’s all positive. Change the word to forestry, and you’ll get a range of responses, all coloured by the legacy of nearly a hundred years of conifer plantations, driven by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) and the private forestry industry. There’s some nice forestry in there, sympathetically undertaken, but it has come with an awful lot of monoculture imposed on the land, doing little good for the countryside and the welfare of its inhabitants. And here we are not thinking of the fine pine forests of Ewing’s own constituency, but the dark green plantations of Galloway and Argyll for example, or the jarring, geometric plantations that come into view as you fly in over the Borders towards Edinburgh airport from other places in the world – places with real forests.
The efforts of FCS in recent years to improve the standards of forestry and cleanse its bad image have not been welcomed by substantial parts of the private forestry industry, which is now lobbying for FCS to be abolished, grants for Sitka planting to be increased, and regulation eased, on the promise of more revenue and jobs. Ewing is lining himself up to accede to these pressures, raising the prospect of yet more plantation forestry, and old controversies being re-awoken.
A key aspect of the real future of forestry revolves around who will own and control Scotland’s forests. The private forestry industry still makes huge efforts to recruit would-be forest owners, often distant financiers with no background in forestry, who take advantage of particular tax breaks which are only available to the well-off (Capital Gains Tax and Inheritance Tax reliefs). One look at the websites of most forestry companies makes this plain. Too many of these types of owners end up taking a strong line in maximising profit, and minimising concessions to community, conservation or the common good. That hasn’t really changed in recent decades. And they do a disservice to those private owners for whom environmental and social benefits are part of the forestry package.
No wonder people are still wary and still want to see things properly regulated. People don’t like land on their doorstep being bought up by absentees, converted to plantations, with the timber then typically exported to regional centres with no value added locally. At the same time the rest of us have scant options to engage with forestry ourselves; only the most determined manage to buy a small piece of woodland, overcoming massive barriers imposed by the pattern of landownership, where holdings are huge and expensive. So people don’t like it when that same private forestry industry clamours for more money in grants for these absentee-owned Sitka plantations and a freer ride with less regulation, even complaining about the UK Forest Standard – which has done more than anything else to underpin the progressive stance taken by FCS.
This is not just an argument about jobs and the economy, it’s also about the use of land – ‘a precious resource … an asset to benefit the many, not the few’ (Scottish Government).
Nor is it suggesting any halt to expanding the supply of timber for the processing industry; we can sign up to that provided other forms of forest owner and other types of forestry business get a fair crack of the whip. This is a plea for a future in which forestry is more diverse, not less so. If you want to see a model of forestry which delivers fulsomely on virtually all aspects of the Scottish Government’s forestry and land use policy just look at the achievements of forestry businesses operating under local control – owned by local residents as individuals, small companies, partnerships, social enterprises or community organisations.
A portfolio of more than 20 case studies recently assembled by the Forest Policy Group were showcased in a sell-out conference in Birnam on 11th November (see report), to loud applause. This sample of locally controlled woodlands and businesses across Scotland provides an inspiring insight into the achievements of and huge potential for this kind of forestry.
Read through the brief case studies and you’ll see that locally controlled woodlands are simply small businesses like any other, producing timber and generating jobs and income for the local area, rural and urban. The woodland may also function as a bank, playground, meeting place, nature reserve, classroom, larder, gym, mental health spa, and centre for the rehabilitation of those who need help to re-orientate their lives. These woodlands enrich the fabric of local life and are hugely relevant to the rural communities that host them. The conference demonstrated that the people who manage these woodland businesses get fulfilment, not just from the joys of the business, but also from providing for the community with a sensitivity, attention to detail, passion and sense of stewardship which is only achievable at a local level.
Locally controlled woodlands and businesses (nurseries, small sawmills, furniture makers, builders, etc) may not individually provide large numbers of jobs, but those jobs are often in fragile communities where other options are few, and every job really counts. They make money too, ‘sticky’ money, re-circulating in the local economy. They grow timber, adding to the output of the industry, sometimes from woods otherwise disregarded as ‘uneconomic’. They also meet local demand for specialist materials and services, often underpinning other types of local job. The conference showed that locally controlled woods are a vital asset for community development, providing opportunities to build skills, confidence, connectedness and pride.
This fits exactly with the Scottish Government’s own Forestry Strategy, starting with the Strategy’s economic outcome of: “competitive and innovative businesses contributing to the growth of the Scottish economy” and going on to deliver on all the four principles of: sustainable development, social inclusion, forestry for and with people, and integration with other land uses and businesses”. Equally, this type of forestry delivers the stated aims of the Scottish Government’s land reform agenda – “a strong relationship between the people of Scotland and the land of Scotland, where ownership and use of land delivers greater public benefits”, and rounds things off by fulfilling the Land Use Strategy’s objectives of “businesses working with nature, responsible stewardship of natural resources, and communities better connected to the land”. Given this direct match with all the relevant themes of Scottish Government policy, it is time for policy-makers and legislators to recognize that this sector has come of age, and now deserves more support.
We need to speak up for locally controlled woodlands and local businesses producing and using local timber. Although impressive progress has been made since the pioneers of the 1990s, it is a revival of forest culture which is still in its infancy, needing a bigger share of attention and available support. It has a small voice but big potential, and if Scotland is to achieve its aspirations this sector deserves a fairer share of the cake. This is the real future of forestry, playing its full part in the life of communities, rural and urban.
[See elsewhere on www.forestpolicygroup.org for case studies and conference report]