National Tree

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

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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.