National Tree

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd May 2013.

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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.