National Tree

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd May 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-06190, in the name of Joan McAlpine, on a national tree. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the significance of the Year of Natural Scotland; understands the importance of creating a legacy from this year, given the loss of woodlands through climatic changes and environmental degradation; recognises the importance of trees and woodland to the environment and people in South Scotland and across the country, and notes calls for the declaration of an official national tree after due public consultation as an important symbol of commitment to woodlands, to bio-diverse reforestation and, more generally, to a greener Scotland.

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I was lucky enough to spend this morning at Butterdean wood in East Lothian with a group of delightful four and five-year-olds from the Compass School in Haddington. With the help of the Woodland Trust, which owns Butterdean, the children joined me in planting Scots pine saplings to highlight the debate.

Representatives of the Woodland Trust are in the gallery, along with representatives of the Scottish Woodlot Association, Scottish Environment LINK, the RSPB and the Borders Forest Trust. They all support the campaign for a national tree, as do Trees for Life, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the John Muir Trust and the Royal Scottish Forestry Society.

It was wonderful to share the children’s excitement. Woodlands are the most stimulating playgrounds of all. There was much chatter about whether we might spot a gruffalo. Apparently, it was lying low today, but the children had a great time with their saplings and spades.

Woodlands foster a sense of wellbeing for people of all ages—that is scientifically proven. In fact, Forestry Commission Scotland has a highly successful project called branching out that offers patients a therapeutic programme of activities from simply walking in the woods to building bird boxes and clearing rhododendrons.

As a child, I was of the generation that planted a tree in 73, which was a massive United Kingdom drive to make good the devastation of Dutch elm disease. I still remember the excitement of getting our very own sapling. At that time, there were very few trees in our housing scheme, which was made up of the 1950s pebbledash houses that are typical of post-war urban Scotland. Now the trees that we planted are mature—as, unfortunately, am I—but the greenery has transformed Midton in Gourock into something of a leafy suburb. Trees give a sense of place and of permanence.

Perhaps it was that childhood memory that attracted me to Alex Hamilton’s petition, which calls on the Parliament to

“urge the Scottish Government, as a symbolic commitment to our woodlands and natural heritage, to proclaim the Scots Pine as the National Tree of Scotland.”

I point out that that demand is non-political—we are asking for a national tree, not a nationalist tree—so I would welcome clarification from the minister of the civil servant’s letter to the Public Petitions Committee that seemed to suggest that we must await the outcome of next year’s referendum before we make a decision.

Scotland is already a nation, and we can choose appropriate symbols whenever we want—we already have the saltire and the thistle, of course. This year of natural Scotland is an ideal time to name our nation’s tree. I must admit that I originally thought that legislating on the matter was a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a pine cone, if members will pardon the pun, but it seems that, around the world, that is how it is done. The maple was proclaimed the official tree of Canada only in 1996, and in the United States there were three resolutions in the House and Senate before a bill was signed by the President in 2003 that elevated the oak to the status of the American eagle.

What is the point of having a national arboreal emblem, as they prefer to call it across the Atlantic? Well, it gets people talking, and if that talk leads to action in preserving and planting woodland, it can help to combat climate change. In the last century, global forest cover dropped from 50 per cent of the world’s land area to 30 per cent. I know that the Scottish Government has a very ambitious target for planting, so any interest that helps to support that objective must be good.

Woodland also supports wildlife. The Galloway forest park in my region is home to red kite, barn owls and golden eagles. The remnants of the ancient Caledon forest further north shelter the capercaillie, the unique Scottish crossbill and mammals such as the pine marten, and, of course, the red squirrel, which we all love, survives in pockets across Scotland, thanks to our forests.

Woodlands are vital to the rural economy. The forestry industry is an economic success story that we do not shout about often enough. I know that the minister was as impressed as I was with the advanced technology that we saw at the James Jones & Sons sawmill in Lockerbie when we visited it a few months ago.

Woodlands are vital to tourism. They form the backdrop to increasingly popular activity holidays. The Seven Stanes mountain bike trails in the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway are a great example of that growth area.

If we think globally for a moment, designating a national tree would help the country to enhance its international brand. Although that brand is already very strong, there is no reason why we cannot strengthen it further. In my view, the Scots pine seems ideal for that purpose. It is named after us, at least in the English-speaking world, and, unlike the birch and the oak, it has not been claimed by anyone else.

Aesthetically, the strong silhouette of the Scots pine lends itself to graphic reproduction and, of course, it features in many famous paintings and photographs of Scotland’s landscape.

The Scots pine came top of the Woodland Trust’s online poll to find a national tree and I can exclusively reveal that it is the front-runner in a separate poll that is being conducted by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for the year of natural Scotland. The Scottish Forestry Commission’s submission to the Public Petitions Committee noted that the image of the pine is the most downloaded from its website.

The Scots pine has many legendary properties and was planted on the graves of fallen Celtic warriors in ancient times. However, it is also modern. It comes in many guises; it can be tall and straight or broad and spreading with multiple trunks, and its bark ranges in colour from orange and red to grey. Although its presence here goes back to the ice age, it is a perfect representative of today’s diverse modern Scotland in all its variety.

The pine also encourages a unique biodiversity. If anyone wants to know more, I recommend that they consult the Trees for Life website, which talks about the Scots pine canopy encouraging blaeberries, cowberries and even rare orchids in the shade of the trees.

The Scots pine is iconic. Although it does not grow naturally elsewhere in the United Kingdom or indeed Ireland, it is the most widely distributed conifer in the world, stretching from Scandinavia to southern Spain and from Ardnamurchan to eastern Siberia. In that respect, it evokes the Scottish human diaspora, which is also widely scattered, and would therefore be a perfect ambassador for a country whose people have made such a mark on this world.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Patricia Ferguson to be followed by Rod Campbell. As we are quite tight for time, I must ask for four-minute speeches.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I thank Joan McAlpine for securing this debate on what is an interesting proposal. I must also apologise to her and the chamber, as other business requires me to leave after I have made my speech.

I, too, recognise the hard work and commitment of my constituent Alex Hamilton who, with the help of many of the organisations mentioned already, has championed the issue through the processes of the Public Petitions Committee and whose determination will, I hope, bear fruit. Sadly, Mr Hamilton cannot be with us today because, ironically, he is on one of the few places in Scotland without any trees at all: the island of St Kilda.

I have to say to Joan McAlpine that we on this side of the chamber are perhaps not as surprised as she is to find that a decision on the national tree of Scotland must await the referendum’s outcome. Doesn’t everything these days? In any case, given that Scotland has a national flower, why should it not have a national tree? Seventy other countries have already adopted a national tree, and some have even emblazoned it on their national flag.

We are a country proud of and famed for our natural heritage, and our scenery helps to promote Scotland as a tourism destination. Indeed, it is always one of the first things that people from overseas remark on when we say that we come from Scotland. As our fame as an outdoor sports destination grows, that picture of Scotland grows in the memories and minds of those who have visited. It would be fitting if there were to be a tangible legacy from the year of natural Scotland in the form of a national tree. I sincerely hope that the Scottish Government will agree to formally recognise such an iconic image for our country.

While doing some research for the debate, I noted Wikipedia’s bold assertion that the Scots pine is the “national tree of Scotland”. We know that that is not quite true, but it is interesting that such an assumption has been made. Frankly, I think that it is understandable. If any tree can symbolise the vision of Scotland’s wild places that most people have, it must be the Scots pine. The fact that, as Joan McAlpine recognised, it comes in many sizes, shapes and colours perhaps chimes with our vision of a diverse Scotland in the modern world.

The pine would definitely be my choice for Scotland’s national tree. However, as Joan McAlpine again has made clear, it is also the choice of those who took part in the Woodland Trust’s online poll. Indeed, 66 per cent of those who participated opted for the Scots pine, with only 20 per cent choosing the next most popular—the rowan. It seems that the Scots pine is certainly the favourite for that iconic role, although I agree with the motion that public consultation should take place before any decision is made to award the accolade to a particular tree.

Deforestation over the years means that the Scots pine is not as common as it once was. Over the past 300 years in particular, swathes of the trees have been cleared to make way for crops. The tree was in great demand as a source of pit props for the mining industry and for other industrial purposes. It is a hardy tree that can be found in many countries in northern Europe, although it ventures as far south as Portugal. It has a lifespan of between 150 and 300 years, although I understand that there are specimens in Sweden that are believed to be 700 years old.

The Scots pine can be grown commercially, but it is also an important part of our ecosystem. Many plants, birds, animals and insects depend on it. Indeed, I am indebted to Mr Hamilton, who provided very interesting information in his petition about the Scottish crossbill, which is a bird that lives only in pine forests and feeds on the scales of the pine cone.

Whether or not the Scots pine is recognised as our national tree, I would argue that it is already an iconic symbol of our country. I hope that the Scottish Government recognises that and will give it the recognition that it deserves.

Photo of Roderick Campbell Roderick Campbell Scottish National Party

I congratulate Joan McAlpine on securing a debate on the subject. Like her, I welcome the visitors from the Woodland Trust in the public gallery who are here to hear our debate.

Those of us in Scotland who want independence for our nation have always said that it is not about flags, anthems and symbols, but that is not to say that symbols have no significance. Symbols can serve to strengthen a nation’s identity in many ways: historically and culturally in particular, or as simple logos. Who could mistake the symbolic eagles of the United States or Germany, which have become unquestionable markers on dollars and the German euro coin respectively? Who could mistake the Welsh dragon or the Welsh leek, and who could deny that the maple tree is inextricably linked to Canada? The Canadian brand and the maple brand complement each other. When we think of maple syrup, we think of Canada, and vice versa.

Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe, and we have our fair share of symbols. Scotland can be identified by the lion rampant, the thistle, the unicorn or heather, to name but a few. At least three of those things are heraldic symbols that are connected with royalty or privilege, which arguably have much less influence and significance now.

In the digital age that we now live in, symbols can be easily transmitted and identified. I certainly do not subscribe to the view that a nation can have too many symbols—indeed, the more, the merrier. There is a good reason for having them. New symbols can bolster identity and a unique brand. We should not shy away from that in a globalised and increasingly homogenous world, particularly when the value of local, non-commercialised produce is being rediscovered by the public, for whom the once attractive mass-produced brand names are losing their charm.

It is clear to me that a strong case is being made for Scotland to formally adopt the Scots pine. In my North East Fife constituency, Tentsmuir forest and Tentsmuir national nature reserve border the coast between St Andrews and Leuchars. The area comprises some 50 square miles of woodland, which is predominantly made up of Scots pine and Corsican pine. Tentsmuir is perhaps one small pocket of something that is close to the ancient Caledonian pine forest habitat that once covered enormous swathes of Scotland, but which has sadly—in such cases, this is often inevitable—disappeared due to a combination of natural and man-made factors, most notably the clearance of woodland over the centuries for livestock grazing.

Tentsmuir forest is owned by the Forestry Commission, and the reserve is looked after by Scottish Natural Heritage. The area is used frequently by students of biology and geology at the University of St Andrews due to its rich biodiversity and preserved and restored sand dunes. The trees are home to a fascinating range of insects and birds, many of which are found only in Scotland and a few other places.

We know, of course, that in other parts of Scotland, Scots pine woodland is home to some of our rarest and most fascinating animals, such as the capercaillie. Without the environment that is provided by Scots pine forests, the capercaillie population, which is descended from birds reintroduced from Sweden, would possibly once again become extinct.

It may be a cliché, but the Scots pine is an inextricable part of the rugged mountainous beauty with which Scotland is identified—for better or worse—around the world. I know that the rowan tree has its admirers—some of us will remember the First Minister’s vocal rendition of “The Rowan Tree” on a CD a few years ago. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that adopting the Scots pine as our national tree would serve only to strengthen the made in Scotland brand. Given the prevalence of the species in every part of Scotland, it is right that it should be called our national tree.

I hope that the Scottish Government will give the matter further consideration, and I thank Joan McAlpine once again for bringing the debate to the chamber.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I, too, thank Joan McAlpine for bringing the debate to the Parliament. As someone who loves the countryside and wildlife, I am very supportive of any initiative that recognises and seeks to promote our distinctive and beautiful Scottish environment. I am therefore not unsympathetic to the concept of a national tree for Scotland, although perhaps Ms McAlpine should not be too wafted away by that endorsement—I shall explain why.

I have form when it comes to promoting national things. Although that may have stopped short of promoting the Scottish National Party, it extended some years ago to promoting a national bird for Scotland. I was asked to take under my wing, as it were, promotion of the golden eagle. At that time The Scotsman, in conjunction with the RSPB, asked a number of people to adopt different birds, culminating in a poll in 2004 that the golden eagle won. I hope that members will indulge me in my recounting of this cautionary tale, because it is instructive for any desire to establish a national tree.

On the back of the poll victory, a petition backed by the RSPB was presented to the Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee to establish the golden eagle as our national bird. In November 2004, the committee decided to write to the Scottish Executive to clarify the process for establishing a national bird—and the months passed. In June 2005, the committee agreed to approach the relevant minister, expressing concern at the lack of a response—and the months passed. In January 2006, some response must have been received, because the committee went back to the petitioner. In September 2006, the committee referred the petition to the Enterprise and Culture Committee. In October 2006, that committee took evidence and agreed to write to the Lord Lyon, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport and VisitScotland to seek views on what effect the establishment of a national bird would have on tourism. I would have thought that the self-evident answer would be “pretty damn good”, but never mind.

On 5 December 2006, the Enterprise and Culture Committee agreed to take no further action on the petition and to notify the petitioners and inform the Public Petitions Committee of the decision.

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I thank the member for arming me with that kind of evidence, which I am sure will be very useful in the future. Is she aware that it took three goes in the American Senate and House of Representatives to get the American national tree through and that all three attempts were held up in committee? If the Americans can eventually get there, perhaps we can as well.

Photo of Annabel Goldie Annabel Goldie Conservative

I am encouraged by what Ms McAlpine says. There is certainly a lesson there about not being thwarted by adversity.

The final note before dismissing the petition on the national bird was that the Enterprise and Culture Committee agreed to write to the Scottish Executive to ask for clarification on the process and procedure for the establishment of a national symbol. Interestingly, that was pretty much what the Public Petitions Committee had done initially more than two years previously. The golden eagle is still not the national bird of Scotland.

That sorry tale was told not to discourage but to outline the pitfalls. Joan McAlpine has been wise to keep her motion non-specific about the type of tree, although her speech was perhaps a little more partisan. It is also important that neither the proposal nor the tree that is ultimately chosen, if that happens, be claimed by any one party. The proposal will work only if there is cross-party and broad-based support.

I observe that accepting a principle is only the start of a long and tortuous journey. From my experience, careful thought must be given to process. It has to involve wide public consultation and embrace public comment on the principle, because if the public do not want a national tree, the game’s a bogey. However, if the public are supportive of that, there are other issues to clarify. The Lord Lyon may have views about the matter and there will need to be some mechanism by poll of constituting a short leet of suitable trees and then inviting a national vote to establish a winner.

If we can do it to decide the name of a bridge over the Forth, surely we can do it to decide on a national tree. Would it be too much to hope that, one day, the golden eagle might sit on that tree as our national bird? I just might have to make that a prerequisite for my continuing support.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you very much for that unusual imagery.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in the debate, as a means of helping to raise the profile of that wonderful tree, the Scots pine. For some people, it is the

“little white rose of Scotland” that breaks the heart; for me it is the Scots pine.

I have yet to see a Scots pine that did not look just right in its setting. Scots pines hold my view and captivate me as few other trees do, and they brighten my travels across the Highlands and Islands, appearing now and then, like old friends. They make my heart pause and then beat a little quicker, and they make me smile. They look equally good in rain, mist, sunshine or snow, and they grow where few other things will grow. Their resilience is a symbol of the tough and enduring spirit of Scotland.

It is sad that all too few are left and that the old Caledonian forest is reduced to 1 per cent of what it once was. That is sad on a number of levels. We all know the stories of how the Caledonian forest was cut down and cleared, to make way for sheep and for other reasons. In Argyll, the wood was burned for charcoal for 100 years. Our Argyll woodlands supplied the cannonballs for Nelson’s navy. It is interesting that the woodland that was adjacent to the Bonawe ironworks was not just harvested but well managed and conserved, but outwith the immediate vicinity of the works, the forest was felled with no thought for conservation. The woodlands were destroyed over a huge area and are gone.

In the place of the old Caledonian forest, we have spruce plantations, from which timber is exported for a few pounds a tonne. There is no local added value and, these days, there are few jobs. Man has been replaced by machine, and our local sawmills, unable to invest in new technology, are gone too. Spruce plantations are deadly for biodiversity. The loss of the old forest is sad for environmental and economic reasons, as well as sentimental reasons.

I have more reason than most people to value the fine Scots pine, for I have used its wood for joists and rafters, and for floorboards and furniture. The wood excels in all those uses. It is workable, enduring and attractive. I remember the sweet, aromatic smell as I cut into it. I remember the pink and creamy hues of newly sawn planks, which mellow gracefully with time. I remember the many pleasant hours that I have spent—and hope to spend—in the company of such wonderful wood.

I can think of no species more fitting than the Scots pine as our national tree. I can see that I have a few seconds left, so I will conclude on a poetic note:

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Photo of Jean Urquhart Jean Urquhart Independent

I thank Joan McAlpine for securing the debate.

I think that all members recognise the important role that symbols can play in the lives of the Scottish people. From the cross of St Andrew on the flag to the thistle on the jersey of our national rugby team, symbols can help to unite us across all society’s divisions. Given that 2013 has been declared the year of natural Scotland, it makes sense for the Parliament to add to the collection of the nation’s identifiable symbols by selecting a national tree.

I was fascinated to hear Joan McAlpine say that Canada adopted the maple as its national tree only in 1996. Like many Scots, I have relatives in Canada, and I proudly remember being five or six and wearing a wee brooch in the shape of a maple leaf, with the word “Canada” on it. I cannot believe that it has taken all this time for the maple to become the national tree of Canada, when the rest of the world already recognised that.

I was interested in how social media have picked up the idea of the tree. Radio Scotland’s “Out of Doors” programme some week ago discussed alternatives, including the rowan tree, the gean, and the hawthorn. There was no doubt that the views of the listeners, and the tweets sent during the programme showed that far in the lead was the Scots pine.

The Scots pine is instantly recognisable. There is no other tree like it. It is strong, straight, tall, wily, hardy and independent—just like the Scots. The small distinctive copses are photographed endlessly as an image of Scotland.

As a regional member for the Highlands and Islands, I drive through many parts of Scotland where there are few or, sometimes, no trees. However, if there are trees, they are always Scots pines. They get where no other trees go—they sometimes grow out of the stone on a mountainside.

From a cultural perspective, the Scots pine comes in many colours and shapes, which symbolises the multicultural nature of Scotland. There is a Scots pine in Glen Loyne that is estimated to be 520 years old. Although that may not be as impressive as the Fortingall yew, it serves as a symbol for the resilience of the Scottish people.

Approximately 75 nations have officially recognised or unofficially adopted national trees. Each of the 50 states in the USA has its own tree. There is no reason why Scotland cannot join other nations in recognising a national tree. If anybody is in any doubt, reading the “The Cone Gatherers” by Robin Jenkins will give them the imagery, the sense of the importance of the forest—literally, the seeding and reseeding of the tree—and how the Scots pine is important in our nation in so many ways. Here is to the Scots pine as our national tree.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I, too, congratulate Joan McAlpine on securing the debate. I also congratulate Alex Hamilton, who is one of my constituents, on lodging the petition that inspired the debate.

As has been mentioned, RSPB Scotland, Trees for Life, the Woodland Trust, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the John Muir Trust—I could go on—are just some of the groups and organisations that have backed Mr Hamilton’s request. Clearly, he has a knack of getting people and organisations with similar interests and passions together to achieve change. That fact that he has got me—an unreconstructed city boy who, in my earlier years, did not pay much attention to nature—speaking in the debate shows the strength of the idea of a national tree. I will say more about that later.

Rod Campbell talked about the importance of symbols. As a multinational state, the symbols of the United Kingdom’s constituent countries tend to be recognised by general public agreement, rather than in any official way. The example of the national anthem is an obvious one. “Flower of Scotland” is widely recognised as Scotland’s national anthem, although officially we share—for the moment—“God Save the Queen” with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. England and United Kingdom also share a national tree—the pedunculate oak, which is more commonly known as the royal oak.

I am one of the MSPs who have made representations on behalf of Mr Hamilton to Paul Wheelhouse, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change. I am sure that we will hear from him shortly on how he wants to progress the matter. Although there is no formal mechanism in place for designating an official national tree, that is not a reason not to do it. It can be done and it should be done, and with willingness it will be done.

The process to date has been constructive. It has certainly got people thinking about our natural world, and appreciating the wonderful wildlife and scenery of Scotland, which are two of our most internationally recognised assets. At times, some of us—as I said at the start of the debate, that includes me—can easily take that for granted.

Joan McAlpine mentioned the boost to our timber industry that having a national tree would bring, and others have said that it will reinforce Scotland the brand. I think that the process by which we choose a national tree is just as important as the tree that we choose, so I would like to say a little about that.

As we have heard already, the Woodland Trust conducted a poll about what tree Scots would go for; two thirds went for the Scots pine, with the rowan coming second. I understand that the winner got 414 votes. I commend the Woodland Trust for that initiative, but I think that we will be talking about thousands of votes when we take the debate forward nationally on a structured and engaged level. That is the key bit that I would like to talk about. After we eventually decide on what our national tree will be, why not reaffirm that, say, every 10 years and let the people decide whether they wish to stay with the Scots pine, which seems to be the favourite, or whether they wish to replace that? In the time that I have left I want to talk about that process.

I would like to see our schoolchildren, for example, deciding what they prefer. Would they prefer the Scots pine, or would they think that perhaps it should be the birch, because the birch covers twice the area of Scotland that the Scots pine covers?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Will you draw to a close, please?

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Would schoolchildren reject the birch, because Finland and Russia already have it as their national tree?

Let us get people talking about it and engaged with the question. As I said, it started me thinking about something that previously I would not have thought about. Once again, I commend Joan McAlpine on bringing the debate to the chamber.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

I congratulate Joan McAlpine on securing time to debate this issue. I am very pleased to debate it in the year of natural Scotland, and I support any initiative to make Scotland greener and any commitment to our woodlands. We have heard from many members why it is so important, and from many organisations including the Woodland Trust, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Environment LINK and the John Muir Trust. Mike MacKenzie mentioned that Sitka spruce does not support indigenous wildlife, and I think that this is a very important step that we can take to ensure that our wildlife has every chance to thrive.

I hope that a national tree will be more than symbolic. Too-recent history has seen the trampling of a site of special scientific interest—one of the most protective of all designations. I believe that designations and titles should stand for something and should really mean something.

If having a national tree brings increased determination to protect our natural spaces and places for their inherent value, it is right that we should have one. It is right that we should celebrate a national tree, but while we focus on one tree we should also dwell on the interconnectedness of all our native species.

Scotland was once a forest land until human activities stripped it of almost all its ancient woodland. Of course, climatic change and environmental degradation has not helped. However, we will be far richer ecologically, culturally and financially if we increase our commitment to our native woodlands and forests.

I welcome the growing interest in community woodland and in community ownership of woodland, and in the sustainable harvesting of our forests. We produce timber for some of the most beautiful and sustainable furniture that one could possibly imagine—Mike MacKenzie alluded to that, too. Some of the furniture, houses and objects that are made by our most talented craftspeople are priceless objects without compare.

In recent times we have had outbreaks of ash dieback and dothistroma needle blight, which have raised awareness of the fragility and importance of our trees and forests, and of the need for safe, sustainable and sensible management and commercial practice. As a member of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, I would like to highlight concerns that have been raised with me about threats to our forests and woodlands from large-scale biomass energy. With a growing human population, tensions over land use will continue, so it is important that we put down markers and state our commitment to our woodland.

The state of the world’s natural forests is a matter of grave concern. Our native woodlands may be small in global terms, but they are distinctive and unique. Our old pinewoods are home to a distinctive range of native species. The “State of Nature” report that has just been published highlights the perilous state of many species, but there is hope. Awareness is increasing, and if we can increase awareness of the importance of our trees at garden level and at street level, and if we can have a renewed focus on and discussion of our trees, we can truly transform our neighbourhoods. Tourists flock to visit the Birnam oak and the Fortingall yew, as we have heard, and Commonwealth Orchard seeks to have fruit trees in all our streets.

Today, I have not focused on one tree—I am content to let the consultation take its course. However, if proclaiming a native tree as the national tree helps to protect and enhance interest in, and land devoted to, preserving and promoting biodiversity, I am more than happy to support the initiative.

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I am grateful to members for their valuable contributions to the debate.

Joan McAlpine’s motion invites us to recognise the significance of the year of natural Scotland and—if she will forgive me for paraphrasing—also to create a legacy that would include

“the declaration of an official national tree after due public consultation”.

In considering the motion and previous discussion of Alex Hamilton’s petition on proclaiming the Scots pine a national tree, I have had a number of questions in mind. First, what is a national tree for? Secondly, what does it mean if we decide to adopt a national tree? Thirdly, what process should we go through—as Bob Doris and others have commented—if we were to choose and adopt a national tree? During the debate, we have had several extremely useful speeches that have helped to address those questions.

As Joan McAlpine said, and as other members have echoed, the designation of a national tree would help to highlight the value that we place on our trees, woods and forests. It would reinforce the messages that are associated with the year of natural Scotland, the primary objective of which is to highlight Scotland’s wealth of fantastic natural assets. Trees are obviously a key part of that.

My second question is what it would mean if we were to adopt a national tree. Again, members have helped to answer that question, giving examples of how we could celebrate our national tree—for example, as part of our cultural heritage, for its contribution to our landscape and in educating children more about the environment in which they live. As part of the year of natural Scotland, we have already been able to inspire people to take more interest in our wildlife by identifying the big five that are being promoted through the SNHBig 5” app—one is the golden eagle, and the others are the otter, the seal, the red deer and the red squirrel. Scots pine is a key species among the Caledonian native woodlands, which support the red squirrel, the pine marten, the capercaillie and the wildcat, as a number of members have mentioned.

Thirdly, we would need to consider the process for choosing and adopting a national tree. I felt Annabel Goldie’s pain when she spoke about the process that she had to go through regarding the golden eagle, which sounded particularly traumatic. As others have said, we would not be the first country to consider such things. For example, like Joan McAlpine, I understand that before the President of the United States signed a bill designating the oak as the USA’s national tree in 2004 there was a national poll. Although I agree that the Scots pine seems to be the obvious choice for Scotland, I foresee an interesting debate if advocates of the Scots pine are forced to defend their choice against proponents who argue that the autumn beauty of the rowan and the graceful splendour of the birch merit a mention. Who knows? Perhaps we could have not just one national tree for Scotland, but the big three.

We shall consider all those matters in the light of the Public Petitions Committee’s consideration of the petition, which we expect to receive shortly.

However, I fear that I need to inject a less welcome note into the discussion—Alison Johnstone has already touched on the matter to a degree. Regretfully, we must accept the fact that ash dieback is present in the UK and is likely to spread further. Unfortunately, that is just one of a number of tree health problems—which Alison Johnstone correctly identified—that we are facing. Dothistroma needle blight is affecting pine trees, including Scots pine, especially in the north and east of the country, and we have Phytophthora ramorum on larch, mainly in Galloway and Argyllshire. The mortality rate from Dothistroma among Scots pine is alarmingly high and presents a real concern for us. In fact, the rate is higher than for Corsican pine and lodgepole pine. Action plans for those three diseases have been developed by the Scottish tree health advisory group and are now being implemented.

Earlier this week, the independent expert United Kingdom task force on tree health and plant biosecurity, which includes three academics from Scottish universities, published its report on how best to address the tree and plant disease threats that we face. I am now discussing its recommendations with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, and it is likely that we will meet shortly to discuss the matter further.

There is an important link between tackling tree health and the aspirations behind the idea of designating a national tree of Scotland. That is because awareness raising is an important element in the range of tree health-related measures that we need to take. The process of designating a national tree could help in making people more aware of the threats and what they can do to prevent the diseases from spreading—for example, washing their boots after visiting woodlands for a walk.

I will respond to a number of points that were raised in the debate.

I agree with Joan McAlpine that our woodlands are key places in which to work and play and for children to understand the natural environment around them. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning is keen to explore further how we develop forest schools, and I want to take that forward.

Patricia Ferguson and Annabel Goldie strongly recommended a wide consultation on selecting a national tree. I take that point on board.

Rod Campbell mentioned that new symbols can bolster identity. Jean Urquhart, I think, made the similar point that symbols can unite people rather than divide them. That is an important part of having a national tree, a national bird or any other national symbol that we might care to mention.

Mike MacKenzie made moving reference to the use of Scots pine in the construction trade. The Forestry Commission has the objective of improving the percentage of building materials that are formed by timber to lock in carbon in building design.

The key point is what we do to take the process forward. I am waiting for the submission from the Public Petitions Committee. We are very sympathetic to the concept of having a national tree, but I want to see what recommendations the committee, based on the consultation that it has done, can give us in relation to a process for going forward.

On timescales, I am optimistic. I hope that, should we decide to designate a national tree, we are talking about a much shorter timescale than having to wait for the referendum and, indeed, for Scotland to become independent in March 2016.

I welcome the debate. I am excited about the idea of identifying a national tree for Scotland and, in light of today’s discussions and the committee’s deliberations, I will think hard about how best to take the matter forward in a way that ensures that we reap the potential benefits without incurring disproportionate costs associated with the designation process.

I thank members for their speeches.

Meeting closed at 17:52.