I thank Joan McAlpine for bringing the motion to the chamber for debate. Protecting our Caledonian pinewoods is vital.
Managing the hills of Scotland, where our Caledonian pine naturally grows, presents unique challenges, and nature itself is probably the most difficult thing to predict.
I had the privilege of managing areas of upland Scotland for 12 years, and I believe that I helped to preserve the Caledonian pinewoods that we are talking about. I would like to highlight some of the issues that are involved in expanding the Caledonian pinewood, the importance of which, I am sure, we all agree on. One project that I did involved trying to establish 600 hectares of replacement native Caledonian pinewood. I can tell members that I have the scars to prove it. For years, we collected seed from registered Caledonian pines, which we propagated. We took cuttings from the trees and grafted them on to pine rootstock. Woodland grant scheme approval from the Forestry Commission was key to the project; I thought that getting it would be relatively simple. That was probably my first big mistake, because the level of consultation that was required was massive. Six years later, after hundreds of hours spent consulting every interest group that came forward, we were no further on, except that I had thousands of trees outgrowing their pots in a nursery.
Among the areas of contention was the fact that the pinewood that I wanted to plant would reduce the hunting grounds for eagles, so bird groups were against it. Some people were against the removal of rabbits, which was encouraged by Scottish Natural Heritage, because their removal would reduce prey for predators. It was also argued that the pinewood would reduce the area of calcareous grassland, which happened to be damaged by overgrazing by the rabbits that were important to the raptor groups but despised by SNH.
It was felt that pedestrian gates in fences might put off walkers, so gates were not supported by the Ramblers Association, but were approved by the Forestry Commission.
Some groups objected on the ground that the scenic view would be curtailed by trees that would merely be replacing native woodlands that had died out. On and on the process went; one day, a group would support the application, and the next day it would not.
However, there was one constant—the support of the Forestry Commission. Like my client, it knew about the importance of Caledonian pinewood. I am grateful for the commission’s support, because it meant that, eventually, we succeeded in getting thousands of trees planted, which was extremely important in helping to preserve the Caledonian woods. I make the observation that I wish that people would sometimes take a more holistic approach to achieving that goal. It is great that the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy has streamlined the process of applying for woodland grant schemes, and I hope that it is progressed.
I turn briefly to needle blight—I will not use the Latin name, because I would probably get tongue-tied—which is a problem that faces pinewoods across the UK. The Forestry Commission’s advice is that planting should be undertaken only when it is deemed to be essential to the short-term survival and long-term integrity of a pinewood ecosystem. That means that we need to encourage natural regeneration. I believe that the commission is right about that. To achieve that, as Joan McAlpine made clear, we will probably have to fence the fragile young pine to protect those tasty morsels from all the animals that prey on them, which include mountain hare and deer. If fencing is not acceptable—I know that it is not acceptable to everyone—we must accept that there needs to be a significant reduction in deer and hare numbers, which might in turn be unacceptable to other people. Such decisions, which are forced on land managers by nature, are the real decisions that we must make. Although they are difficult to make, we have to make them.
I welcome the debate, I welcome the work of Trees for Life, the Woodland Trust Scotland and private landowners who are trying to improve the situation, and I welcome the commitment of the Forestry Commission. All of them are working to promote our Caledonian pinewoods and jointly, as a Parliament, we should support them in making the hard decisions that they have to make, based on knowledge, not on emotion.