Since the early 1990s’ the lack of commercial tree planting in the United Kingdom has been a major concern to the forestry sector and downstream industries including sawmilling and timber sales. Annual conifer-tree planting (the main commercial crop on which the timber industry depends) fell around four-fold in the decade since its high in the mid-1980s, and has fallen further since. Despite that there has been heavy investment in the sector and it is now lauded as modern, innovative and extremely important to the country in terms of job creation, but also for the economic, social and environmental benefits that forests provide. This is particularly the case in Scotland, where the climate and rural landscape makes it particularly attractive for tree planting and timber industry investment.
As a consequence of the lower planting rates the availability of domestic timber will fall significantly at some point over the next decade. The UK is already a net importer of timber but the import share will have to increase in order to satisfy the demands of the housebuilding and biomass sectors, as well as the myriad of other end-users.
The Scottish Government recognises the importance of a strong forestry sector, and the need to stimulate more tree planting in order to sustain and develop businesses that operate within it. The new Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing is very vocal in his appreciation of the importance of forestry. In 2016 the Scottish Government commissioned Jim Mackinnon CBE to examine the forest industry and existing regulatory barriers to woodland creation. Following a three month period of review with industry stakeholders Mr Mackinnon’s report was published in mid-December and makes a number of recommendations, including:
1. Streamlining the process to approve sustainable planting schemes.
Landowners and woodland managers frequently voice frustration at the current approval process, and in particular the time and cost involved in preparing Environmental Reports and satisfying the stipulations of Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) There is a clear tension between the need to massively increase planting rates and the costs, inconsistencies and uncertainties that are inherent in the current regulatory system, and it is no surprise that this was recognised in one of the key recommendations.
2. Earlier engagement with Local Communities.
Good forest managers and advisors have long recognised the need to win hearts and minds, but it is felt that the sector as a whole could focus more on demonstrating the benefits that forestry can bring to rural areas and engaging with local people on concerns over noise, safety risks and woodland aesthetics. The reality is that the sector has worked hard to bring improvements in all these areas, but is still working to repair historic reputational damage.
3. Accreditation of agents for smaller or less controversial schemes.
There will still be a place for FCS to deal with sensitive or complex schemes or where an Environmental Impact Assessment is required, although the recommendation is that this should be a central team with specialist expertise. For most schemes it should be possible for experienced woodland managers to provide certification, and this recommendation represents a significant step away from the FCS’ role of “policing” planting proposals.
There is a lot in the report which will be welcomed by the sector and it is hoped that we will soon start to see the implementation of the proposals.