The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-06658, in the name of Màiri McAllan, on forestry’s contribution to net zero Scotland. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible.
This debate is timely: it comes as world leaders gather for the 27th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP27. I take the opportunity, on behalf of the Scottish Government, to urge the very greatest possible ambition, action and bravery from all those who are negotiating, because that is sometimes what it takes.
Climate change is a crisis of existential proportions, and it is no exaggeration to say that our future on an inhabitable planet relies on the actions that they will take.
Last year, COP26 affirmed the role of forests in balancing greenhouse gas emissions and removals, adapting to the impacts of climate change, and maintaining healthy ecosystems. The Glasgow declaration committed signatories to halting and reversing forest loss globally by 2030, which is hugely important.
Much of our domestic forest resource was established to create a strategic reserve of timber after global supply chain disruption. Today, our forests are no less strategic. Indeed, they are vital in addressing a multitude of global challenges, including the race to net zero, tackling nature loss, and delivering benefits for our economy and people.
Today, I will reflect on our achievements while recognising the current challenges and setting out how we in the Scottish Government plan to continue to optimise the many benefits that our forests offer.
In Scotland, our forests cover just 19 per cent of our land area. That can be compared with a European average of around 46 per cent. However, we have targets to expand Scotland’s forests and to create 18,000 hectares of new woodland each year from 2024-25.
Since the launch of the forestry grant scheme in 2015, it has supported the creation of 68,000 hectares of new woodlands. That is an area that is equivalent to the size of East Lothian. Indeed, in recent years, 80 per cent of all new trees going into the ground across the United Kingdom have been in Scotland. The grant scheme also supports the management of existing woods, including the restoration of our native woods and Scotland’s iconic rainforests.
Since the devolution of forestry and the publication in 2019 of “Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029”, forestry in Scotland has been a real and growing success story.
We should all celebrate the success of the tree-planting strategies. However, the minister will be aware of the very real concerns from the agricultural community about the loss of productive agricultural land to trees. That has been raised with me by two branches of NFU Scotland, and I know that it was raised at its recent conference, at which the minister spoke. Does the Scottish Government have a strategy to address that issue, or is it simply the case that, when agricultural land is put up for sale, it is a free-for-all as to what use it is then put to?
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I thank Murdo Fraser for raising that point. My view is that sustainable food production and increased forest cover must be part of a net zero Scotland. The Scottish Government’s strategy—if I can speak to it in the generality—is about recognising the many opportunities that our land gives us to rise to the challenges that we face with climate change and nature loss, and making sure that we optimise each of those, while not undermining the others.
At the conference that Murdo Fraser mentioned, I was able to share with delegates the fact that the total amount of woodland that has been planted on prime agricultural land since 2015 amounts to only 0.2 per cent. However, it is a question of having a balance. Our strategy is to have the right tree in the right place.
Later this year, I will lay in Parliament a report that details some of the successes to which I have referred and sets out the progress that has been made so far in delivering on the 2019 strategy.
As I was saying in response to Murdo Fraser’s question, I am clear about the co-benefits that forestry is delivering for Scotland—for climate, for nature, for people and for the economy.
First, I want to talk about climate. Scotland’s forests are our largest carbon sink—they absorb about 14 per cent of Scotland’s gross greenhouse gas emissions. Our targets for woodland expansion will help to grow and maintain that carbon store. Last year, Forestry and Land Scotland launched a climate change plan for the public forests, which set out commitments to using nature-based solutions, adapting how we manage Scotland’s national forests and land, reducing emissions, capturing more carbon and developing renewable energy capacity.
Those carbon benefits of forestry are also attracting private finance to invest in woodland creation projects. Landowners who receive grants towards the cost of planting trees are allowed to register with the woodland carbon code. Recently, Scottish Forestry has strengthened the rules of the woodland carbon code to ensure that that carbon market is reliable, credible, has integrity and, crucially, creates additional resource.
The carbon dioxide that is stored in the trees as they grow continues to be stored in wood products throughout their life and in the built environment. As the world population grows and demand for products that can store carbon and which take little energy to manufacture grows, we must be prepared to rise to that growing demand.
I share the minister’s sentiments and wish her well, and I hope that she is enjoying the portfolio as much as I did.
I would like to direct the minister’s attention to new research that was commissioned by Scottish Forestry, the outcome of which provided firm evidence that it is our established spruce forestry that will capture most carbon in the near future—it will capture 14 times more carbon than broadleaves will in the early years of growth. Even over an 80-year span, conifers can capture three times as much carbon as broadleaf natives, especially if that spruce or coniferous wood is used in construction.
I agree with Fergus Ewing’s point about the importance of commercial forestry that can absorb carbon quickly and lock it up in a wood product. Equally, my point today is about balance and optimising everything that forestry can deliver for us.
On that note, I would like to move on to talk about nature. All our forests make a contribution to nature, enhancing wildlife habitat and supporting priority species. Riparian woodlands also play an important role in connecting wildlife and guarding against flooding.
Scottish Forestry and NatureScot are working together to improve the ecological condition of our native woods, particularly our designated sites and our Atlantic oakwoods—Scotland’s rainforest. I am delighted that, recently, my colleague the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity and I were able to announce £1.3 million of additional funding to support rainforest conservation in Scotland. Critical to that will be clearing invasive species such as rhododendron, while managing livestock and other matters.
I could talk about nature all day—I am sure that Lorna Slater will do more of that later—but I am conscious of time and would like to move on to what I see as the third co-benefit of forestry in Scotland, which is what it brings to our rural economy.
The UK as a whole is the world’s second-largest importer of sawn timber and timber products. As much as 80 per cent of demand is being met by imported timber, which comes mostly from the European Union. Each year in Scotland, we sustainably harvest around 7 million cubic metres of timber from our forests, which is roughly the same volume of timber as we use.
Scotland is fortunate to have some of the world’s most technologically advanced sawmills and wood panel manufacturers, and work with Edinburgh Napier University over many years has established the suitability of our home-grown timber for many uses, including construction. We have an on-going target to increase the amount of timber going into construction, not just to prolong the life of carbon stored in the timber, but to add as much value as we possibly can around the supply chain and jobs.
As the minister responsible for forestry, I co-chair the forestry and timber industry leadership group, which is working to increase efficiency and innovation in the supply chain, develop the workforce for the future, and add the value that I was talking about. At the last count, forestry and timber contributed £1 billion to Scotland’s economy and supported 25,000 jobs. The sector’s own strategy, “Roots for Further Growth”, aims to double the contribution to our economy by 2030.
It is clear that the creation and management of forests create many opportunities for us. However, as I said in my response to Murdo Fraser’s question, our land—as important and rich as it is—is a finite resource and, to achieve our woodland creation targets, we must balance.
I am very clear that farmers are part of the solution to climate change. As I said, we need both sustainable food and increased woodland cover in a net zero Scotland.
In a very packed programme, I have opportunities to speak with a number of international colleagues about forestry. One thing that I will be saying is that, despite Covid and some of the worst winter storms ever experienced, Scotland still managed to meet 80 per cent of its target. I think that we planted more than 10,000 hectares, whereas the equivalent figure for the rest of the UK is 3,000 hectares. Therefore, I will be saying, “Here’s how you can learn from Scotland and the successes that we have had so far.”
If I can, Presiding Officer, I want to finish my point about woodland and farms. I believe in having the right tree in the right place and the co-existence of trees and agriculture. More than half of the forestry grant scheme applications for grant support for woodland creation are for smaller woodlands—those under 20 hectares—which are typically part of existing agricultural businesses. They provide shelter for livestock and habitat for wildlife, reduce our carbon footprint, provide an alternative fuel supply, and help planners with flooding.
Farmers and crofters are, of course, part of wider rural communities. As we increase our forest and woodland resource, and attract greater levels of private investment, we are determined to ensure a just transition and benefits for our people.
I would like to mention timber transport. I know that a number of communities are dealing with the impact of transporting timber from our forests to sawmills and other processors. Much of the rural road network is older than our forests, and I know that moving timber can cause disruption. That is why the Scottish Government continues to support the strategic timber transport scheme, which invests in road and other transport infrastructure to make the haulage of timber from our forests more sustainable and less disruptive.
As well as being the minister responsible for forestry, I look after the land reform portfolio, and I am clear that we must make sure that people, including future generations, are poised to benefit. Community ownership is an important part of that, as is Scottish Forestry’s Community Woodlands Association.
To bring about a just transition, we need a framework of policy and law that supports community engagement and attracts investment in good green jobs and industries. I very much hope that responses to my consultation on the proposed land reform bill will allow me to take the bill forward in that regard.
Presiding Officer, I want to get this on the record, so I hope that you will afford me the time to do that. I hope that today there has been a shared recognition of the importance of forests and the wide range of benefits that they deliver, but I recognise that there are on-going challenges. Through this parliamentary session, we will invest £100 million in the forestry sector, primarily through the grant scheme, which is geared towards woodland creation and management. The forthcoming Scottish agriculture bill will provide the legislative basis for future grant support for forestry, and ensure continuity and enhancement.
In the shorter term, and as announced in the September programme for government, we will build on the success of the forestry grant scheme with further enhancements. Those will include a new riparian woodland grant, which will provide multiple benefits for biodiversity; more support and advice for farmers who wish to integrate trees into their business; and a package of measures to support public engagement. I am pleased to announce that we will consult on future grant support for forestry early in the new year to ensure that the legal provisions provided by the forthcoming agriculture bill can be deployed most effectively.
All of that and more is about the Government’s determination to support the broad range of social, economic and environmental benefits that Scotland’s forestry is well poised to deliver.
That the Parliament acknowledges the essential contribution to net zero that trees, woods and forests make, tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, especially ahead of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP27; notes the importance of growing and maintaining a resilient forest resource to sustain its economic, social and environmental contribution; welcomes the achievements made in implementing Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029; further welcomes the creation of 4,362 hectares of native woodland in 2021, delivering the target agreed in the Bute House Agreement, which will be reviewed in the forthcoming biodiversity strategy, and reiterates the commitment to increase the use of domestic timber, and the Scottish Government’s annual woodland creation target, which increases to 18,000 hectares by 2025.
I am pleased to open the debate for the Scottish Conservatives. I thank the Scottish Government for bringing a debate on such an important issue.
I also thank Màiri McAllan for her opening speech. I will do my best not to go over time as I know that she has to fly to Egypt shortly to help to ensure that the First Minister achieves her ambitious target for high-level selfies.
As the motion indicates, getting Scotland’s approach to forestry right is essential to tackling the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. It is not unusual for MSPs to accuse one another of not seeing the wood for the trees, but this is one debate where it is important that we see both and, indeed, look beyond the forest altogether.
There is no question but that forestry makes significant contributions to our economy and our ecology, and I will touch on a few of those contributions in my speech. Forestry plays a role in everything from house building to preserving wild salmon stocks and, all too often, is underappreciated and underrecognised.
As members will see, the amendment in my name stresses the need to go further in a pragmatic and sustainable way. I use the words “sustainable” and “pragmatic” deliberately. Addressing the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss is not simply about shifting priorities but about balancing them. If all that we sought to do was to plant as many trees as possible, that would be simple, but, in the process, we would create a different set of problems for the environment.
Land on which we can plant trees can also be planted with food. My colleague Rachael Hamilton will shortly expand on the point that allowing productive farmland to be used for tree planting would be a grave mistake. However likely that scenario is will depend greatly on how well the Scottish Government structures the agricultural support schemes and helps to finance not only tree planting but agriculture. For many small farmers and landowners, a relatively small change in the structure of subsidies could make the difference between food production and forestry. As members know, I am a firm believer in the benefits of local food production for the planet, the economy and public health. I urge the Scottish Government to ensure that food production remains a priority.
Alongside that, we must strike the balance between protecting and growing more woodlands that contain native species and ensuring a sustainable, home-grown timber supply. As the Forestry Policy Group rightly advises the Scottish Government, we should be expanding forest cover using the principle of having the right trees, and the right mixture of trees, in the right place for the right reason. At the moment, that appears to be the exception rather than the rule.
According to the report “State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021”, Scotland has around 65 per cent non-native woodland cover. Scottish National Party members always like to hear about how the SNP’s performance compares with performance in other parts of the UK, so I will tell them. In Wales, the figure is around 50 per cent and, in England, it is even lower, at 30 per cent. The Woodland Trust and Confor have called for 50 per cent of trees planted in Scotland to be native species. Over the past six years, the Scottish Government has been able to achieve an average of only 40 per cent.
Of course, it is not as simple as saying that we must radically shift towards native species, as Scotland’s forests must be productive for industries that rely on timber. However, they must also be productive for nature. I welcome moves to increase the use of domestic timber but, for timber to be truly domestic, the industry cannot and should not continue to rely so heavily on imported saplings. The Woodland Trust Scotland has stated that at least 20 different tree diseases and pests have been imported into Scotland since 1990. As we face the loss of up to 75 per cent of Scotland’s ash population in the next 20 years through ash dieback, it is time to ask ourselves how long we are willing to risk our mature trees by continuing to import so many saplings.
Native woodlands are the key to sustaining so many other elements of Scotland’s natural habitat and biodiversity. Riparian woodland is a prime example. Such woodland along rivers and watercourses helps to prevent flooding and to control the water temperature, supporting stocks of wild Atlantic salmon, which are impacted by rising water temperatures. The roots prevent erosion, and fallen leaves and branches provide nutrients and shelter. Alder, which is particularly common near water, even has bacteria on its roots that fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, improving its fertility.
Native woodlands give us a prime opportunity to support the diversity of Scotland’s forests through planting a wide range of species and building biodiversity from the ground up. Diversity of planting strengthens the resilience of the forest and can act as a barrier against the spread of disease, as well as encouraging a broader range of other plants and animal life.
There is a place for fast-growing conifers that are quick to harvest. However, alongside that, we must do more to increase the numbers of broadleaf woodlands to deliver larger long-term stores of carbon. To put it another way, the SNP should be more supportive of diversity in woodlands than it is of the diversity of opinions among its back benchers.
There is no way that the targets set by the Scottish Government can be achieved unless they are matched by ambitions to grow the workforce in the forestry sector. Agriculture, forestry and fishing account for 21 per cent of all businesses in rural Scotland, and that figure is only forecast to grow in the coming decade.
Some of our most successful businesses and largest rural employers are related to forestry. In my own South of Scotland region, where employment in the sector is four times the national average, I have been pleased to visit many such businesses. However, from every one of them, I hear the same story—they want to grow but they are being held back by the lack of a properly skilled workforce. That is just one of the many reasons why I continually urge the Scottish Government to better integrate the needs of the green economy into our education system.
Does Mr Whittle agree that the industry throughout Scotland, whether in the sawmill sector or in the panel products sector, very much relies on and requires there to be a continuous, reliable, steady and long-term provision of commercial species, mostly coniferous species, so that it can continue to use wood as a construction material and thereby contribute to not only the economy but the more sustainable use of materials in construction—gradually replacing brick and concrete, we hope?
Does Mr Whittle believe that there must be a continuing focus on the provision of commercial coniferous species, which is essential to and a mainstay of our commercial wood products industry in Scotland?
Of course we have a significant industry in Scotland around conifers, and of course we need to maintain it. Whether it be EGGER, an international forestry and wood products firm that has a base in Cumnock, the Glennon Brothers sawmill in Troon—incidentally, 40 per cent of its timber comes in by sea—or Ailsa Wood Products outside Girvan, there has to be that ambition. We have to maintain the industry.
However, as we have said to the minister, we have to have a balance, because we also need to look at biodiversity, which I will come on to. Scotland’s forestry sector, as I have said, should be a prime destination for school leavers looking to develop an interesting and successful career. Scotland’s young people have shown us time and again that they are committed to a green, net zero future for Scotland, and the forestry sector is one that will be leading the charge. Net zero will not only create entirely new opportunities in the economy but transform the existing sectors of that economy. That includes everything from decarbonising timber production to better integrating tree planting and agroforestry into our farming sector.
I turn to biodiversity. It may be that climate change gets the most headlines, but halting our declining biodiversity is no less critical to the future of our planet. Franklin D Roosevelt said:
“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
I think that we can go further and say that forests bring strength not only to our people but to the planet itself.
By now, we will all be aware—at least, we should all be aware—that Scotland ranks 212th out of the 240 nations assessed for the quality of our nature. It should therefore come as little surprise that, in 2021, 40 per cent of Scotland’s sites of special scientific interest for woodland were classified as being in an “unfavourable” condition, with another 20 per cent being classified as “unfavourable but recovering”. The Climate Change Committee’s 2022 report to the Scottish Parliament says that
“whilst Scotland’s vision for a well-adapted nation is welcome, more needs to be done to translate ambition into actions that are commensurate with the scale of the challenge.”
To put it more directly: ambition is good, but action would be better.
I am aware that I am running out of time. This has been called the decisive decade for climate change; it is in this decade that we will make the decisions that will determine whether we are successful as a nation and as a planet in taking the steps that are required to head off climate change. Just as forestry must plan years, even decades, ahead of its planting, we have to think for the long term about our approach to climate change. As the ancient Chinese proverb puts it, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.
I move amendment S6M-06658.1, to leave out from “achievements” to end and insert:
“progress made in implementing Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029, including the creation of 4,362 hectares of native woodland; notes that Scotland continues to experience significant biodiversity loss and species decline; considers the delivery of an effective, ambitious biodiversity strategy to be critical to the preservation of Scotland’s diverse ecology and reversing the decline in biodiversity; acknowledges the potential of Scotland’s commercial forestry sector in carbon sequestration efforts, including through increasing use of domestic timber, while also recognising the critical biodiversity benefits of new woodland creation using a diverse range of native species; further acknowledges the importance of protecting farmland to improve food security and food production; recognises the need for greater funding to develop the skills of existing and new forestry workers; raises concern that the Scottish Government only created 9,414 hectares in the last year, below its 12,000 hectares target; notes that the Scottish Government’s annual woodland creation target will be increased to 18,000 hectares by 2025, and considers it critical that this and other targets to strengthen forestry’s contribution to achieving net zero and halting biodiversity loss are met on time and in full.”
As the world gathers in Egypt for COP27, it is easy to forget that just 12 months ago, Scotland hosted COP26, when the Glasgow leaders’ declaration on forests and land use was signed. That committed 145 countries, covering 90 per cent of global forests, to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. However, unless that commitment in Glasgow is turned into action in Sharm El Sheikh, it will go the same way as the failed 2014 New York declaration on forests to halve deforestation by 2020.
We know that it will not be possible to keep the planet below 1.5 degrees of global warming without stopping deforestation and land degradation. The Glasgow commitment recognised that we have an interest in and a responsibility for what happens beyond our borders and how our actions impact on fragile forests overseas, but it should also focus our minds on what happens within our borders.
The UK remains the second largest net importer of timber in the world, after China, in order to meet our growing consumption of wood products. In fact, we currently import 80 per cent of our timber. Population growth and economic development drive that demand, but so does our desire to transition to low-carbon products—for example, using more wood instead of steel, concrete and bricks in construction.
If our consumption of wood in the UK continues to increase at the same pace as in the past decade, it will rise by an estimated 78 per cent by 2050, at a time when current estimates forecast that, from the 2040s, UK supply will fall. Labour recognises the need for far more ambitious tree planting targets in order to address long-term timber demand, avoid ever-growing imports and, crucially, lock in the other benefits of tree planting for nature, carbon storage and public health. Crucially, we also need to ensure that the targets are met. Although the Government’s aim is to deliver at least 18,000 hectares of trees planted per year by 2024-25, the target of 12,000 for 2022 was missed by nearly 2,000 hectares.
When delivering those targets, we need to deliver the right mix of trees, in the right place. Today, forest and woodland cover 19 per cent of Scotland’s land, but that varies across the country. In Dumfries and Galloway, 31 per cent of the land is covered with woods and forests, making it the most forested part of Scotland. The geography—the land is close to a motorway and rail links to the market—means that, in 211,000 hectares, there is a disproportionate focus on tree species that will meet demand for timber. Although that is important, not least because of the local jobs that are created, it results in pressure on inadequate infrastructure where planting takes place, including roads that were never built for the 40-tonne wagons that are used to remove the timber. Even with the timber transport fund, those roads are badly in need of more investment. It also results in pressure on communities who feel that their landscape is being carpeted by Sitka spruce, with a loss of natural habitat and little or no input from those communities, who want to see more native and broadleaf trees.
I share many of Mr Smyth’s sentiments. However, I allude to the research that I referred to earlier, which was commissioned by Scottish Forestry and prepared with the assistance of Forest Research. The research states that the impact of reducing commercial spruce forestry would result in more imports and threaten climate targets.
Having higher targets would reduce our demand for imports, as would, crucially, meeting those targets.
As I have just said, there is pressure as a result of sometimes having the wrong trees in the wrong place.
That has prompted calls for a review of the current grants scheme by groups such as Communities for Diverse Forestry, in the south-west, to deliver a better geographical spread of commercial planting locations and to ensure that more native trees and woods are part of that mix, both through expanding native woods and properly caring for existing ones.
As Fergus Ewing has said, there is a great deal of research in this area. We know from the Woodland Trust’s landmark “State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021” report that ancient woodlands in Scotland hold, on average, 30 per cent more carbon compared to the average carbon stocks for other woodland types.
There is absolutely no doubt that there is a balance to be struck, and that is one of the reasons why, as we increase our targets, Labour not only wants to see a significant increase in trees to meet timber demand but supports the Woodland Trust’s call for at least 50 per cent of all woodland expansion to be through native species.
It is essential that we do more to ensure that future cultivation and tree planting is carried out carefully in the right soils, using the right methods, or we will fail to maximise our carbon storage from forestry.
There are many examples of excellent projects doing just that, such as the Tarras valley nature reserve in the Eskdale valley, where the community raised an astonishing £6 million to fund a community buyout of 10,000 acres of Langholm moor. The community’s vision and plans for the moor are truly inspiring and include action to play its part in tackling the nature and climate crises through peatland restoration. With community support from the Woodland Trust, native woodland will be expanded and the ancient woodland will be restored.
Ownership matters. One of Labour’s concerns is the rise of the so-called green lairds. Scotland’s largely unregulated land market has allowed companies to buy huge swathes of that land so they can claim that they have green credentials by offsetting their carbon. Many of those purchases take place off market in secret private sales, which prevents communities from seeking to register an interest in that land, and, of course, land-price inflation often makes community ownership impossible, even if the community were able to register an interest.
The Scottish agriculture sector is also feeling the effects of land acquisition for forestry and carbon offsetting. It is seeing inflated land prices that are often unaffordable, restricting opportunities for those new to the industry and raising fears of the loss of productive agricultural land.
So, what can we do about it? We need to better protect the people’s interest, especially on off-market land sales. The Scottish Land Commission needs the power to act on land monopolies and to have a genuine public interest test for large land purchases. We need to look at the financial support regime and how that can be better controlled when ownership is simply big business trying to offset its own carbon footprint. Further, we need to better support the community ownership of land, tasking Co-operative Development Scotland to?promote that co-operative and mutual ownership model of land in Scotland.
Getting the relationship right between forest management, biodiversity and agriculture is challenging, but it is key to delivering a transition to net zero—and that needs to be a just transition. The?forestry?sector contributes almost £1 billion gross value added to the Scottish economy every year and supports more than 25,000 jobs, many in our rural communities.
I pay tribute to everyone who has worked in the sector—past and present—and has contributed to its growth. I also place on record Labour’s thanks to the trade unions that represent many of those workers—Unite the union, the?GMB, the Public and Commercial Services Union, Prospect and the? FDA—for the work that they do to secure the best terms and conditions for their workers.
Forestry?is a high-risk industry. Every year, workers in it are injured at work—in some cases, they are, sadly, killed, and many more suffer from work-related illness. We should recognise the important role that our unions have played in driving up safety standards for workers, and we should thank those workers who have not only delivered the success story that is Scottish forestry but will continue to do so in the future. I am, therefore, pleased to move the Labour amendment, in my name, so that this Parliament can place on record our thanks to that workforce.
I move amendment S6M-06658.2, to insert at end:
“; recognises that the rate of growth in tree planting in Scotland slowed in recent years; calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that forestry plans deliver its tree planting targets, increase biodiversity and tackle climate change; celebrates the contribution of Scotland’s forestry workers and their trade unions, and recognises the importance of maintaining and increasing a highly skilled workforce, and contributing to a low carbon Just Transition.”
I want to start by complimenting the minister. She has genuinely listened to the concerns that have been expressed—particularly the point that Murdo Fraser made about the conflicts and competition around land use. I will deal with some of those issues later, but I must first say that her speech showed that she has listened well, particularly when she talked about the need for balance, the finite amount of land and the important role that farmers play in the use of the land.
I think that the minister must have one of the best jobs in the Government. She recently got to meet Tarzan, the logging horse, at Loch Arkaig pine forest, in Argyll. As members know, I have a particular affection for animals and photo opportunities, so I was particularly jealous of the minister’s opportunity to meet Tarzan in Argyll.
I considered a career in forestry, but it is probably a relief to those who are interested in trees that I chose politics instead. Therefore, I am still a layman with regard to forestry, but I have been particularly keen to understand the real conflicts and tests of the huge competition for the use of land in Scotland.
The ambition is great. I remember standing on platforms during the 2019 election campaign, when there was a massive bidding war between all the political parties as to who was going to plant the most trees across the United Kingdom. In some ways, that was bizarre, but it was uplifting that we were competing on such an important environmental issue. It is a fine goal, and we have achieved some significant progress. Although, as the minister has admitted, the targets have not been met, progress has been made.
I accept the points about Covid and the weather, but we have a long way to go if we are to make up the time that was lost for tree planting during that period. I hope that we have plans to meet the target of 18,000 hectares planted by 2025 and to make up the time that we have lost. We have met only nine of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets, and we have a long way to go if we are to meet the rest of them.
I thought that Fergus Ewing’s point was interesting. It is a wide and varied sector with massive competing demands and interests. There is a conflict between imports and the use of land in our country to plant trees not just for biodiversity, but for production and construction. We do not always want to import, because of the carbon miles that are involved. We also have other competing demands for land in this country. For the purpose of food security, we want to reduce food miles. Particularly because of the uncertain world that we live in now, we want to grow more in this country.
I will take it in a second.
Should we be using land for the production of barley for whisky? Is that more useful than just growing trees? That is a debating point. I have an anaerobic digester in north-east Fife that is using sugar beet grown on the land to generate gas. That might be quite a good thing, considering the issues with Russia and energy security, but should we be using land in this country to generate gas when we are trying to reduce our carbon emissions?
Of course, trees sometimes take productive land. As the minister has said, 2 per cent of our productive land has been lost since 2015. That might not sound like a lot, but the farmers feel it, and that is why they are raising the matter with us repeatedly. I accept what the minister said—it sounds a small amount, but the farmers feel the pressure of that, particularly as land prices are shooting through the roof. Those are all massive competing demands, and we cannot look at them in isolation; we need to consider them in the round.
That is slightly left-field, but, yes, I think that it is important. I understand the concept of having the right tree in the right place. The James Hutton Institute has highlighted that just planting trees does not necessarily mean that we capture more carbon. Sometimes, there is a net loss because of the loss from the soils, so it is important that we plant in the right place, and the Labour Party highlighted the regulatory arrangements around that. Primarily, we are using the carbon market, grants and the woodland creation approval system to regulate that, but all of that seems to encourage more tree planting rather than necessarily putting trees in the right place.
I would love to, but I had better not.
The minister talked about the land reform bill and the agriculture bill that are coming—I hope that we might see an improved regulatory arrangement, so that we can deal with the long-term issues that may come.
I accept that there have been some improvements with the woodland carbon code, which is a good thing. The smaller grant schemes, particularly for farmers, are a good thing, as are the tennis court-sized schemes and the biodiversity grants that have been announced recently. All of those are good, but I wonder whether we need to do more to regulate not only how but where we are planting the trees, to allow us to deal with all the competing demands.
We move to the open debate. I advise members that we have pretty much exhausted the time in hand, so interventions will have to be accommodated in the speech allocations.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in favour of the Government’s motion, which underlines the essential contribution to reaching net zero that trees, woods and forests make in tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Forests and woodland cover nearly a third of Argyll and Bute, and they are wonderful places to explore. I am afraid that I had a picture there of Willie Rennie dressed as Tarzan, flying through the trees. Established in 1935, the Argyll forest park, as Forestry and Land Scotland says, has it all. It has craggy peaks, hidden glens, peaceful sea lochs and rushing rivers, as well as an abundance of diverse wildlife including red squirrels, sea eagles and beaver.
Argyll and Bute is also home to some of the world’s most significant ancient oakwoods and temperate rainforests, where almost every surface is covered with lichens, fungi, mosses, liverworts and ferns.
Almost exactly a year ago, at COP26, I travelled to Cormonachan community woodland, in Argyll and Bute. I was there to attend a blessing of Scotland’s Celtic rainforest by five indigenous leaders from the Amazonian rainforest. The community event that followed was a blend of Gaelic cèilidh and traditional songs from the Amazon. It was truly international and inspirational.
As the species champion for the Celtic rainforest, I am pleased to be able to promote and support, in the chamber and outwith it, the amazing work that communities and organisations across the west coast of Scotland are doing to encourage the regeneration of our rainforests. The April 2019 report on the state of Scotland’s rainforests notes that
“With just over 30,000 hectares remaining, there is very little rainforest left in Scotland.”
The report identified that overgrazing, invasive species, mismanagement and neglect, as well as pests, disease and climate change, are threatening the rainforest’s survival. However, with the creation of the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest, Scottish Government support and passionate communities, things are beginning to improve. The Scottish Government’s £65 million nature restoration fund is there to support projects that address the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, and I suggest that the Celtic rainforest is a fantastic match.
On the island of Seil, the community met to hear about a project that proposes to reconnect fragments of Argyll and Bute’s rainforest. Seil has one of Scotland’s finest examples of ancient Atlantic hazelwood, and islanders are sharing their skills—from collecting seeds to tree planting, and from fencing to deer management—to protect and expand it. The project is being led by Seil Biodiversity Community Interest Company, which is already working hard to clear the island of invasive rhododendron ponticum, with the Argyll and the Isles Coast and Countryside Trust. The idea of becoming part of an international restoration project is still in its early days, but mapping has been done to pinpoint areas of interest, which include Knapdale woods, Taynish nature reserve and parts of Mull and Islay.
The aim of creating a bigger and better-connected Celtic rainforest will ensure more resilience to threats and environmental changes, helping it to survive and thrive. It will also contribute to sustainable development and economic growth. However, Argyll and Bute’s treescape is not only Celtic rainforest—Argyll and Bute has almost twice the Scottish average of its land under woodland cover. The forestry industry, through planning, harvesting, management and maintenance activities, and timber transport, makes a major contribution to Argyll and Bute’s economy and employs a relatively large number of people, particularly in the rural areas.
Foresters in Argyll and Bute have been very innovative in adapting to the market and economic conditions, which, given the terrain and distances from markets, has always been challenging. We hear a lot about upskilling for green jobs in oil and gas, but I wonder whether that could apply to forestry, too, particularly—as we heard earlier—with the emphasis on more home-grown wood materials and less reliance on imported materials. We need to have the skills for that and should perhaps even re-establish local sawmills.
When I am travelling around my constituency, it is rare for me not to see a timber lorry full of felled trees. To enable that important industry to remain, the Scottish Government has, as the minister has referenced, invested in and improved strategic timber routes. Timber is one of the many reasons why the transport minister announced in August an acceleration of the work to achieve a safe and timely solution to the problems at the Rest and Be Thankful.
Over the past six years, an average of 40 per cent of all the new planting in Scotland has been non-native species, with the rest being production conifers. Although farming and forestry can co-exist, farmers have raised concerns with me about productive land being bought and forested, which impacts on their livestock and productivity. One described their farm as becoming the only restaurant in town for foxes and sea eagles. We need to listen to such concerns, and finding a balance is important.
However, we also need to listen to those who are diversifying and planting on areas that are less productive for livestock. The Government supports a farmer and crofter-led initiative that has a network of farm woodland demonstration sites across Scotland. Together, Woodland Trust Scotland and Soil Association Scotland have produced a report on integrating trees on farms and crofts in Scotland.
The Baleveolan croft, on Lismore, is a thriving and diversified business. It even has a tea plantation, as well as an orchard and 5,000 trees. The Baleveolan croft and other crofts and farms across Argyll and Bute show that trees that complement farming and crofting systems can be successfully incorporated into the farmed landscape.
I recently spent an energetic Saturday working with friends on Islay, removing the plastic cones that were protecting the trees that we had planted—there were almost 4,000 of them—in 2017 to commemorate the first world war. We were supported by Woodland Trust Scotland.
In “The Cone-Gatherers”, the great Argyll novelist Robin Jenkins writes about two brothers who are tasked with collecting seeds from cones to replant a forest that is felled for the war effort. Now, replacing our forests is even more important. By planting the right trees in the right place, we can soak up more emissions while providing a boost to our environment, our economy and people’s lives.
It would be interesting to know who Jane is.
Around 100 years ago, only 5 per cent of Scotland’s land area was covered with trees. That figure, which is creeping up towards 20 per cent, does not take into account the swathes of landscape in which trees are unable to grow.
The capacity for forests to contribute to meeting Scotland’s net zero ambitions is indisputable. However, as we have heard today, there is more to planting trees than simply finding space, sticking them in the ground and patting ourselves on the back for doing a good job.
As my colleague Brian Whittle has mentioned, Scotland’s farmers are facing significant spatial pressures at a time when global food security is under severe strain as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Producing food while looking after our environment is at the heart of farming in Scotland, and a drive towards the afforestation of arable land is of severe concern to many farmers across the country, as members have described.
Last week, I met members of the local NFU Scotland branch in my constituency, in the Scottish Borders, many of whom were at the rally outside the Parliament last week. They were keen to express their concerns about forestry impacting their ability to produce food. Such was their concern about the Scottish Government’s land use strategy, they were keen to share the figures that I quoted at the beginning of my speech.
I am not raising that issue to dispute the vital role that forestry has in capturing carbon from the atmosphere—the Scottish Conservatives share the Scottish Government’s net zero ambitions. However, forestation in Scotland seems to come with needless costs. We have already heard of the damage that non-native planting causes to Scotland’s biodiversity. A relentless drive towards more trees at all costs is also damaging Scotland’s ability to put our valuable productive land to best use: growing crops, grazing livestock and filling supermarket shelves.
Fundamentally, I believe that forestation must be balanced against Scotland’s agricultural needs and food security. It must also take into consideration the needs and vitality of rural communities.
Sadly, the Scottish Government’s cloak-and-dagger acquisition of the Glenprosen estate, in Angus, has raised eyebrows across the country. The acquisition comes at a cost of £25 million to the taxpayer. I know that Nicola Sturgeon would describe that as a very small amount of money, but the real cost of the acquisition is far more than that—it comes with the loss of five livelihoods and the decimation of the Glenprosen community.
As that sets a precedent, rural communities are rightly concerned about which estate might be next. How many more families will be forced out of their homes through dodgy deals? How many more jobs will be lost and industries damaged? The Scottish Government committed to helping those families who were displaced by its acquisition of Glenprosen estate to find new homes and new jobs. I wonder whether the minister, in closing, could provide us with an update on what kind of jobs were found and how far away those individuals had to move to take them.
FLS said that buying the estate would help Scotland to realise its climate change ambitions in areas such as woodland creation and biodiversity, putting aside the evidence that planting non-native trees in these areas will do nothing to harm biodiversity. Does the minister also believe that there is no other way to achieve those ambitions than through secret deals that her Government has sworn to prevent, which destroy rural communities, or is there a more sensible approach?
I have been keen to emphasise that there are clear benefits of forestry in Scotland. I would add that I sincerely welcome the fact that the minister has brought this debate to the chamber.
I will depart from speaking on the missteps of the Government on woodland creation and focus my comments on something a little closer to home. As Scotland’s riparian woodland champion, I have been working closely with Tweed Forum over the past year on its riparian woodland restoration project, and I am delighted to be hosting an event on riverwoods at the beginning of next year, to highlight the fantastic work to repair a riparian woodland that the forum has been involved in. I invite colleagues to attend and learn more about that in January.
I recognise the member’s interest in riparian woodlands. Does she recognise that the growth of deer populations severely impacts our riparian woodlands, which is exactly why the Government needs to take on the recommendations of the deer working group and bring population numbers down?
It is important to control deer—there is no doubt about it—but we should do that without having secret, dodgy deals whereby we are planting woodland. We have to manage the land, and we need land managers to do that. We need gamekeepers to help us, as they are trained to kill deer. We need a proper approach to this that involves the community as well. I thank the member for his intervention.
We have discussed biodiversity at length through the debate. Although reservations about the impact of non-native woodland on Scotland’s biodiversity have been clearly outlined, the restoration of riparian woodland offers a real opportunity to start pushing the needle in another direction. Fish stocks as well as land-based species are known to benefit from the protection of riverwoods, and I hope that the minister will join me in holding the Scottish Government to its manifesto commitment to improve support for tree planting around rivers and streams.
I hope that, in her approach to the future of forestry in Scotland, the minister will commit to considering more closely the needs and opportunities of rural communities and our country’s food security. The Scottish Conservatives are calling for a sensible approach that listens to the needs of farmers, landowners, gamekeepers and rural workers and communities.
I commend all the speakers in the debate thus far. On Rachael Hamilton’s last point, plantation high in the river catchment areas can contribute to alleviation of flooding, for example.
Most industry in Scotland is conducted in cities or towns. Very few industries are, or can be, conducted in rural Scotland. Forestry is the industry of rural Scotland and rural Britain. When we hear the figures that others have mentioned in the debate—25,000 jobs and £1 billion turnover—it is important to reflect on the fact that more than three quarters of those jobs are in the sawmill and panel product sectors. I repeat: three quarters. Over three quarters of that £1 billion in revenue derives from that economic activity. I say that to put this in context.
That industry has had some tremendous successes. In my constituency, a total of £145 million has been invested in one plant, the Norbord plant that is now owned by West Fraser. I thank those two companies for that investment, because now we have, just outside Inverness, what I believe is the most modern plant in Europe. It is therefore able to compete better than plants that have lacked investment, as we have seen in many other industries, leading to the demise thereof. Companies such as West Fraser and James Jones and Sons, which plans to invest a staggering £70 million in Mosstodloch, and £150 million in 2022, are some of the largest investors in Scotland.
I say that because, all too often, when we think of forestry, we think of lumberjacks and rudimentary physical labour. However, the industry is now one of the most sophisticated engineering industries in the world. If members have visited modern sawmills, as I suspect they have, they will have seen exactly what I mean. Automation is the name of the game, and high investment is necessary to ensure success.
I therefore wish the minister well, and I want to use most of my time to make a series of suggestions about how, together, we can best achieve the ambitious planting target of 18,000 hectares a year. In politics, success is a land to which one seeks to travel but where, sadly, in my experience, one does not often arrive. However, in my five years as cabinet secretary, we doubled the number of hectares planted from about 5,000 to about 10,000, although we did not quite get to the target, as Mr Mountain repeatedly and very helpfully pointed out to me in committee.
To get to 18,000 hectares, there are some things that the minister might wish to consider doing. The first is to look at the bottlenecks and constraints in the handling of consent applications. In each conservancy—I visited all the conservancies in my time as cabinet secretary—there are professional staff who are doing that work. However, the salary scale is such that, when they reach the top of that scale, in many cases, they go to the private sector, where they can earn substantially more. That is a very real problem. The loss of one person in one of those offices can result in delays, bottlenecks, constraints and difficulties. The minister should consider whether we can increase the salaries for those professional officers so that they can do the work more quickly. If they cannot, we will not get to 18,000 hectares of planting.
I promise not to mention, at this stage, the failure to achieve planting targets. When the member was cabinet secretary, he tried to streamline the planning process. Is he going to bring up that issue, because it is one of the biggest bottlenecks that we face in the countryside?
I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.
I am pleased that Mr Mountain has gone from being my greatest critic to being a mind reader, because I was just about to say precisely that. The process—not simply the planning process but the overall process—was simplified and streamlined by Jim Mackinnon, the former chief planner. Because he was so well respected, he took people with him and his 21 recommendations were implemented. However, the process needs to be reviewed, whether that is done by reinstructing Jim or in some other way, because I am hearing that there are too many delays.
We need to maintain and not reduce the current proportion of 60 per cent of new plantings being commercial. We also need to maintain, as far as possible if we are to remain consistent with the forestry standard, the proportion of restocking that is of coniferous species. We also need to ensure that the enterprise agencies incentivise innovation. There are now machines that can plant a million trees in a day—the innovation is incredible. However, I am not sure that the enterprise agencies help in that regard. A ministerial direction to that effect would quickly sort things.
There should be a standing council involving the Governments of the four constituent parts of the UK, because many of the issues involve cross-border working. I do not have time to go into those issues now, but that would be a good idea.
The tension between agriculture and forestry has been remarked on, and it is there. As the minister said, one way to alleviate it is by ensuring that more farmers can access forestry schemes. I particularly commend setting up a scheme for secure tenant farmers—it would be a template scheme whereby such farmers and their landlord can invest in partnership. A separate scheme for that is well worth exploring, possibly along with reform of the right of resumption, which is a bit of an issue.
I will conclude, because I am in danger of going over my time, Presiding Officer.
The forestry officials who serve the minister are excellent and of high quality—many of them are here today, so I am just buttering them up a wee bit. With their help and with a bit of change, I am sure that we can achieve the ambitious target and that the minister can succeed where I did not quite manage so to do.
It should be not a radical idea but a basic tenet of democracy that there is transparency in our political system, openness in government and honesty in communications, and that we seek to answer the big questions of our age—the climate crisis; the continuing threat of war, including nuclear war; the rampaging inequalities in income, wealth and power; and the unyielding rise of the corporate economy. That is why, for me, politics is not a game; it is the serious job of this Parliament to consider who the winners are and who the losers are—who gets the money and who has to pay.
If we take our land and our forestry, what we are witnessing is not an extension of community ownership but an explosion of corporate ownership. When it comes to forestry subsidies, over a quarter of a billion pounds has been awarded since 2015, and 95 per cent of that has gone to private interests. Much of it has gone to rich individuals and organisations. Over half of that money is still going to subsidising the planting of non-native highly profitable conifers, so it is no good SNP and Green ministers lodging motions in this Parliament about biodiversity and native woodland when, under their watch, out in the real world, nothing much changes.
I have not got the time.
There are some new entrants, of course, such as Aviva, whose website slogan is not, “Helping you save the planet”, but
“Helping you make the most out of your money”.
There is also BrewDog, a privileged new nobility masquerading as philanthropic punks, and Standard Life Investments Property Income Trust, which has recently acquired thousands of acres in the Cairngorms national park, not for the common good but as a speculative asset.
Then there is the Gresham House forestry fund, which is bankrolled by the Scottish National Investment Bank. Its business objective is not to plant trees or save the planet but to aid the super-rich in avoiding paying taxes—income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax.
Of course there should be public investment in woodlands and the public subsidy of forestry, but what is happening is that the money is almost all going to already mega-wealthy individuals and organisations.
I accept that that is not entirely new. That inspiring socialist John McEwen—himself a forester—refers in his seminal book, “Who Owns Scotland”, to the Economic Forestry Group, which was established in the early 1960s on the back of what it freely admitted was a helpful tax structure and generous Forestry Commission grants.
Neither is the pattern of land ownership new. Half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people; that is the same as it has been for centuries. That is what lies at the heart of this debate—not just the question of land use and land management but the question of land ownership.
There is nothing new, either, in that old landowner lobby, now spearheaded by Scottish Land & Estates—which is chaired by a former banker whose family has owned a 4,500 acre estate in Moray for generations—even in recent weeks declaring that, without Scotland’s private landowners, we will fail to deliver net zero. It claims that a public interest test would be
“counter productive to ... the just transition to Net Zero ... given the major contribution estates make”.
You could not make it up. I say to them this afternoon that we have the most concentrated ownership of land in the whole of Europe. Does that mean that all the other European countries with a fairer distribution of land ownership and land wealth that are attending the COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh will miss their net zero targets because they do not cling on to feudal landlordism?
Forestry grant systems and tax breaks are private wealth funds for the few, paid for by the many. That is why I say to the Government that an unregulated market in carbon credits, coupled with an unregulated land market and a huge concentration of wealth, is not making for a just transition but for an entirely unjust transition. In these debates, we hear a lot from the minister about human rights—the human rights of landowners, speculators and absentee interest groups—but what about the human rights of the people who live and work on the land and in those communities? Do they not have human rights as well?
We need an end to the commodification of climate change; we need an end to so-called green capitalism and an end to the phenomenon of green lairds,
which is nothing more than extractive capitalism, pure and simple. We need a new start, which means radical land reform as part of a wider democratic renewal, because in the end that is the only way that this Parliament will find the answers to those big questions that we face. Peace over war; climate before capitalism; redistribution of wealth and power; democracy in our economy as well as in our politics—that is the only way that we can organise a better future, build a better tomorrow and give people hope for today.
I will start with the international dimension of the debate, then move to its national and local dimensions, while recognising the essential link between biodiversity and climate change in this agenda.
This Monday, the inaugural forest and climate leaders summit took place at COP27. Some 26 countries, including the UK and EU countries, announced a commitment to join the forest and climate leaders’ partnership. The partnership will help to deliver the commitment that was made in Glasgow at COP26 to halt and reverse forest loss and degradation by 2030, while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation.
The US and Ghana will chair the new partnership and will preside over the first ministerial meeting on Saturday 12 November. The countries in the partnership account for more than 33 per cent of the world’s forests and nearly 60 per cent of global gross domestic product.?The partnership will hold annual meetings to encourage accountability and, starting from 2023, will publish an annual global progress report.
However, only 22 per cent of the €12 billion in public money that was pledged for forests, to be disbursed by 2025—funds that were committed to in Glasgow—has so far been disbursed, which means that 78 per cent has to be disbursed in less than three years. Germany has doubled its financing for forests to €2 billion through to 2025, which is welcome.
Scotland has planted 80 per cent of all the new woodland in the UK—more than 10,000 hectares of new forests—for the past four years It has a commitment to increase the use of domestic timber, and the Scottish Government’s annual woodland creation target will increase to 18,000 hectares by 2025. However, we need to focus on how we do that.
Land ownership and the delivery of net zero is a key connection. Today’s agenda must be aligned with land reform, agricultural support and the fourth national planning framework.
I am concerned that so many of Scotland’s farms are being sold off market for forestry, but I know that if a desire for diversification is flagged, mixed use for food, forestry and possibly energy can be achieved, rather than selling to forest hedge funds—if that is not an oxymoron. Forestry Land Scotland stands willing to help.
I am also concerned that international measures for carbon trading will come too late and that green lairds, which are often international companies that pay no tax here, will benefit twice—buying lands for future investment returns and forestry grant incentives and gaining the ability to trade for carbon credits on top of that. With the danger of spatial double accounting for carbon reductions, there is the risk of a false sense of security about progress in that area.
During our recent visit to the Arctic Circle conference, I was very struck by the keen interest in learning lessons from Scotland, where vast tree planting projects took place that caused real damage to our peatland carbon sinks; by the need for wetlands to be restored globally; and by the role that we can play by being frank about what should, and should not, be done.
Trees that are planted on deep peat might dry out, causing the soil to rapidly decompose, which might release more carbon than the trees absorb. When we were in Iceland, we also heard the argument that there should be no planting or harvesting at high altitudes, because leaving the snow bare reflects light and reduces overheating in the atmosphere.
The Woodland Trust told us that carbon in Scotland’s woodlands needs to be stored for the long term, to avoid passing the climate change problem to the next generation. Therefore, we need permanent woodland cover, alongside sustainably managed commercial plantations where the wood is used in long-lived products. Only this morning, I addressed the issue of the timber industry with Ivan McKee, our Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, with regard to how we can cut carbon miles in our construction sector and benefit from the increase in forestry production that my colleague Fergus Ewing, who has so much experience in the area, has set out.
The Woodland Trust tells us that the longevity of trees is a key factor that is currently missing from climate change and nature policies. That is important advice. It also told us that ancient woodland in Scotland holds, on average, 30 per cent more carbon than other woodland types. I was interested in what Tom Arthur, the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, said yesterday about NPF4 in that regard.
As I bring my remarks to an end, I come to the local. Beecraigs forest in my constituency has, along with West Lothian Council, produced an environmental action plan, “Beecraigs Forest Plan” that takes us to 2033. The forestry management objectives of the plan include:
“to manage the forest in a sustainable manner to continue providing the Country Park facility for generations to come ... to enhance the landscape for the enjoyment of visitors including the retention of big trees where possible ... to safeguard and enhance the biodiversity and historical features ... and to produce timber and other wood products which can provide income to help support the management of the forest and other facilities.”
Appropriate woodland expansion can bring many benefits, including richer and more diverse habitats; enhanced landscapes; carbon sequestration and storage; timber, wood fuel and other woodland products; ecosystem services, such as clean water, mitigation of diffuse agricultural pollution, and reduced flood risk; and secure jobs and a stronger economy.
I am pleased to support the motion to recognise the role of forestry in delivering net zero.
It is clear that the sharp impact of the climate and nature emergencies is reminding us every day that the window for action is closing. We must work together to reshape our relationship with nature if we are to avoid those tipping points of the collapse of nature and our climate. I am proud that, with Greens now working as part of the Government, the restoration and expansion of Scotland’s native woodlands is happening on an unprecedented scale.
As we have already heard from Jenni Minto, native woodlands are the strongest of the nature-based solutions that we have to capture emissions and move us ever closer to the target of net zero by 2045. The Woodland Trust’s report, “State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021”, shows that ancient woodlands in Scotland hold 30 per cent more carbon compared with the average carbon stocks for other woodland types. Although all woodlands have important roles to play, expanding our ancient woods will not only lock up carbon but provide a home for the wildlife that is struggling right now to adapt to climate change.
I am grateful to the member for giving way. Does he agree that, when we plant saplings, it is really important to procure and grow them locally rather than importing so many trees, which is causing so much disease in our indigenous species?
Mr Whittle raises an important consensual point. The important work that Government needs to do is about building up the supply chain and the capacity of the commercial sector and the sector that is growing our native woodlands across Scotland.
I warmly welcomed the minister’s announcement of a consultation on the next stage of the forestry grant scheme, which I hope will allow for an even sharper focus on that climate and nature objective and the need for woodlands and forestry to deliver multiple benefits.
In that case, I apologise to Mr Ewing.
As a regional MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, I know that communities and third sector organisations are at the heart of our efforts to restore, protect and expand woodlands. For example, the heart of Scotland forest partnership in highland Perthshire is a wonderful blueprint for how partnerships can protect and expand native woodlands while creating public access for those of all abilities and delivering skills and economic opportunities for young people.
I was delighted to be invited by the John Muir Trust to officially open its Foss Loop path, under Schiehallion, in the summer. It is a beautiful walk-and-wheel route that helps to tell a Perthshire story of woodland regeneration and renewal. The Woodland Trust’s newly funded Forth climate forest is also worth highlighting. It is a 10-year landscape-scale project that harnesses communities’ enthusiasm for tree planting, and it is set to deliver a similar range of objectives around wellbeing, climate and ecological benefits.
At the heart of those projects is a balanced approach to tree planting that takes careful consideration of our precious soil carbon and delivers a diverse mix of woodland cover, with a focus on native species. It is worth reflecting that half the carbon in our woodlands is actually below the ground, so we need to manage woodlands and their soils as a long-term, nature-rich carbon sink, and avoid the costly mistakes of the past, such as when deep peatlands were planted with commercial forestry—a point that was well made by Fiona Hyslop in relation to her recent visit to the Arctic Circle assembly.
There is also a need to proactively tackle threats from overgrazing, muirburn, invasive species and—I say to Mr Whittle—plant diseases, which could undermine the role of woodlands in meeting net zero. Again, I highlight the work of the John Muir Trust: it has been working in Perthshire to progress its montane woodland project to restore native specialist tree species such as juniper and montane willows as well as oak and pines, which have long been threatened by overgrazing and muirburn practices. It is vital that we protect tree planting, woodland generation and peatland restoration from further damage if we are to meet our climate and nature commitments.
Delivering on the deer management group’s recommendations to prevent overgrazing and the trampling of young trees is vital to achieving those efforts, but that point has not yet been mentioned in the debate. Is it the elephant in the room? I do not know, but we have to tackle the issue of deer management in order to make progress.
In addition, national parks need to refocus on the nature and climate emergencies, and learn from the mistakes of the past, in order to deliver multiple benefits at a scale that can make a difference. Every day, I see the Sitka plantations in the core areas of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park; those are a legacy from the past and are not delivering the multiple benefits that we demand from forestry today. Landowners, including Forestry and Land Scotland, need to plan for regeneration and restoration, while the Government’s commitment to create new national parks must accelerate efforts to increase native woodland cover.
Through the Bute house agreement, we have been able to not only deliver but surpass the target of 4,000 hectares of native woodland creation in 2021 and set an annual woodland creation target rising to 18,000 hectares by 2024-25. In addition, the nature restoration fund has already been instrumental in helping more than 100 projects to take root, restoring Scotland’s natural environment on land and sea. I welcome the new threads of funding that the minister announced today, in particular for riparian woodlands, and the important points that Mr Ewing made with regard to ensuring that tenant farmers can also be part of the picture.
We have to build on those achievements and commitments to shape the next chapter in the story of Scotland’s woods and forests. I look forward to seeing the Government work on that in the months and years to come.
I very much welcome the debate. As I learn more about the industry, I am beginning to see far more of its value than I previously did. However, there is no doubt that the Scottish Government’s policy on tree planting has not been met with the same level of enthusiasm across all sectors. There are tensions that need to be addressed so that the environmental, economic and social benefits of forestry and tree planting can be agreed and shared across our communities.
The thing about land is that they are not making any it more. I do not believe that it is the case that folk do not want more trees—NFU Scotland has stated on more than one occasion that it is happy to see trees being planted. However, there is a level of disagreement as to what constitutes the right tree in the right place, because the right tree for some people is the wrong tree for others, and the right place for some people is wrong for others. That means that we cannot simply talk about tree planting in general—the discussion needs to be more specific, and the balance needs to be right.
The wood-panel industry in Scotland and the Confederation of Forest Industries tell us that they have an insatiable need for timber right now and that they will need even more wood in the next 25 to 30 years just to satisfy current demand.
The UK currently imports 80 per cent of its timber, as the minister mentioned earlier, and the Scottish Government’s target of building at least 100,000 more houses over the next decade will increase the demand for timber frame kits. Where will those thousands of tonnes of timber come from?
I am sure that our Scandinavian neighbours will be chuckling away to themselves at the prospect of that long-term market being filled by Scandinavian timber. I think that we need to scupper the Scandinavian plans and turn them into Scottish plans for Scottish businesses that will create Scottish jobs.
There are arguments about whether tree planting, in and of itself, is the carbon sink that some people say that it is. That feeds back into the debate about having the right trees in the right place, and about the purpose of planting them in the first place. I suggest that no single argument on tree planting is a zero-sum game, but this is an area of contention so clarity is needed in the messaging about what we are trying to achieve. I am reliably told that conifer carbon sequestration is far greater, for the shorter growing period, than carbon sequestration by broad-leaf trees and that, as long as the product is then used constructively, we can add at least another 20 to 30 years of carbon sequestration. I hope that the minister will address such tensions in her closing speech.
There is demand for good-quality commercially productive planting at the current 60:40 split—I dispute the comment that Mr Whittle made earlier; Confor wants the 60:40 split—to build a sustainable and renewable source of timber for a thriving timber-based industry that will satisfy the growing demand for building.
That has the potential to rebuild a sector that has been lost over the years in Scotland. I am sure that many of my rural colleagues will well remember that every estate used to have a thriving local sawmill that made fence posts, sleepers and rails for the local market—those were circular economy products from a circular saw, if you like. Why not rebuild that sector right here when we have so much demand? A sector that is already worth more than £1 billion to our economy has the potential to provide tens of thousands of jobs. In my view, we need to pursue that economic potential with some vigour.
As for the climate crisis, the arguments have been made; it is imperative that we all play our part with regard to trees’ ability to sequester carbon and with regard to the crisis that we are facing.
I have seen how little is left of the glacier fields on top of Kilimanjaro, and I can tell members that it is sobering to see in real life the direct effects that our actions have had south of the equator. However, it is not necessary to go to such heights to see the effects. Closer to home, last year’s floods in the German town of Schuld resulted in nearly half of the village being lost.
Even closer still, two weeks ago, more than 100 people attended in my constituency a meeting that was organised by the member of the United Kingdom Parliament, Pete Wishart, to demand action from the local authority and the Scottish Government to stop major floodwaters running right through the housing development in Craigie.
Those people are scared and angry, and they believe that their houses have been flooded as a result of more houses being built higher up the hill. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency told the meeting that the cause of the latest flood was a month’s worth of rain falling in just over two hours. We all know that, unfortunately, those kind of freak downpours are becoming less freakish and far more common, and that that is likely to get worse as time goes on.
There are communities across every one of our constituencies that have that same fear and anger, so as the Parliament of the people and the Government of Scotland, we have no choice but to do all that we can to stop the climate emergency.
I have often heard it asked what difference tiny Scotland can make to the worldwide problem. I say that we can make a world of difference. Our First Minister has been criticised for attending COP27. I am glad that we have serious thinkers such as Alex Rowley in the chamber, because we have for centuries been making a world of difference with so many things that have made the world better.
The punishment for the quality of Brian Whittle’s contribution is that I will take no interventions from him.
However, we have also added to the crisis through our inventions, so our imperative to act now is every bit as important: the First Minister acting on that world stage is vital, in that regard.
Our actions alone will not save the planet for humanity, but our example will set a benchmark for others to follow—not least our neighbours down south, who could learn a bit from what the Scottish Government is doing.
Farmers are feeling justifiably angry about the fact that they are being blamed incessantly for all the ills of our climate and nature problems, whereas, in fact, they are undoubtedly a major part of the solution. They will help us to restore the balance between nature and climate and quality food production, but they are frustrated to see huge tracts of quality land going under trees.
The messaging has simply not been heard enough from the Government or the forestry sector about how farmers can be the co-beneficiaries of the new potential diversification. I go back to the point that my colleague Fergus Ewing made earlier: secure tenants must have a part of that, too.
We still have work to do in working out what the balance is and how to ensure that local communities, farmers and forestry co-exist and thrive, but I am confident that we can find the balance that everyone wants.
Jim Fairlie just said that we need serious thinkers in the chamber. It is long past time that we had a serious debate on forestry and net zero, but the evidence suggests that the Government is not taking the issue sufficiently seriously—evidence such as the fact that the minister who lodged the motion will leave this chamber to fly 4,000 miles to Egypt. Although we do not know the financial cost of that, because the Scottish Government prefers to keep secret both the cost and the number of people going, the environmental cost must be considerable. And we have heard nary a peep from the Green Party. What a misnomer.
It is COP27 and, of course, the UK is the representative party.
On the point about what everyone is at COP27 for, the minister’s motion notes
“the essential contribution to net zero that trees, woods and forests make, tackling the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss”, but not enough is being done to promote that essential contribution. In April 2021, the Government pledged to plant 18,000 hectares of new woodland per year by 2025. Earlier today, the minister stated that she thinks that more than 10,000 hectares were planted. According to a response to a freedom of information request that I have received, Scottish Forestry, the forestry arm of the Government, has, through the forestry grant scheme, created only 9,414 hectares between September 2021 and August 2022.
There is more. My FOI tells me not only that the Government failed to hit the planting target, but that 54 per cent of what was planted—5,052 hectares—is non-native woodland. That is important, because television naturalist Chris Packham has warned that non-native species aggravate the biodiversity crisis, and the Woodland Trust has said that native trees are more effective at capturing carbon when planted at scale and over a long period. The Government is just not serious enough.
That is further evidenced by recalling how Lorna Slater proudly announced, in mid-October, £1.3 million to promote recovery of the fragile forest ecosystem. However, only four days later the Woodland Trust told her that it will cost about £500 million to properly create more woodland.
Interestingly, it was reported earlier this week that whereas the Scottish Government offered £1.3 million, the Irish Government is putting €1.3 billion into Irish forestry and tree planting. That is taking forestry seriously.
There is something else here that is just not right. It is just not right to tell farmers and so-called green lairds to take large tracts of land and stick trees on them. That is not sympathetic to neighbouring farmers or local people. It is imperative that communities be brought along in the debate, and that everyone is open and transparent.
I really do not have any time, I am afraid—much as I would like to give way.
The minister, therefore, should perhaps be commended for her promises last summer to take action to avoid cases of large land holdings being sold behind closed doors, without going on the open market. That was, as I understand it, with the goal of creating a more diverse pattern of land ownership and to ensure that farmers and local communities could bid. Indeed, I think that I am right in saying—although, strangely, I was not invited—that at the most recent SNP conference, delegates called for the party to stop secret land deals.
That is why I was so surprised to learn that Government-owned agency Forestry and Land Scotland recently purchased the 16,500-acre Glen Prosen estate in my region off-market, to turn it into land for woodlands creation, thereby costing several rural workers’ jobs. When the agency was asked how much it bought the estate for, answer came there none. Given its likely impact on land price inflation, which Colin Smyth mentioned, I think that we can comfortably describe the rumoured purchase price of £25 million as seriously concerning.
Then I cannot.
Members will well remember Storms Arwen, Malik and Corrie last year. As we have heard, at a basic level, forestry locks up carbon through growth of trees and using the wood that is cut, processed and employed in the construction or refurbishment of buildings—I note Confor’s helpful note about productive wood in that regard. Storms create carbon losses through tree falls, the opportunity cost of those trees not growing and, perhaps, release from the soil. They also reduce the quality of some of the wood.
We need to minimise the carbon losses as much as we need to focus on planting trees. That means that there must be much greater focus on mitigation, adaptation and resilience and ensuring that, as Scottish Land & Estates says, we put the right tree in the right place. Therefore, careful design and management are critical.
A Government that was serious about the matter would be on top of that, but I understand from speaking to industry that it took the Government until March to quantify how much damage had been done by the storms and that it then had to revise the estimate from 4,000 hectares to 8,000 hectares. The windblow action committee was eventually established but had still not been called by 3 December, despite storm Arwen hitting on 25 November. There are few and limited substantive estimates for the economic damage, carbon losses and longer-term impact of the storms.
We have a Government that talks the talk on forestry and net zero but is found wanting in delivery. That is epitomised by the fact that, following the conclusion of the debate, the minister charged with sorting it all will be found at the end of a 4,000-mile flight in Egypt.
I acknowledge that Scotland is the leader in tree planting in the UK. That is a real positive but, as others have said, the rate of growth in tree planting has slowed. We can be satisfied that good progress is being made, but we can also stress the need to make more progress moving forward.
I note that Confor, representing the forestry and wood-using industry, has written to MSPs setting out its asks for the Government. It asks that we keep up with the targets. It also asks for productive forestry for a just transition. It states that it is vital that the split between productive and native planting continues at 60:40 and that 95 per cent of wood production is softwood. Confor also wants Government backing for research and development. It stresses that tree breeding will ensure an improvement in the tree stock’s productivity and resilience as well as its adaptability to climate change, pests and diseases. I hope that ministers will respond to those asks and take them on board.
Confor also speaks about the importance of productive trees. Productive forests produce softwood, which is the most widely used wood in house building and in the movement of food and goods using pallets. Therefore, it is important that the right choices are made on the types of planting that are done. Getting that right also means avoiding deforestation abroad, because more productive forests at home will help to reduce the reliance on wood imports and help protect habitats that are at risk of deforestation abroad. It is important that we get that right.
It is estimated that the industry contributes more than £1 billion to the Scottish economy and supports 250,000 full-time jobs. Therefore, we would want the sector to succeed on economic terms as well as in terms of improving the environment.
However, I will raise an issue that Jim Fairlie touched on and that was raised with me when I met farmers recently. They said that they had concerns that good land that would grow food is being taken up for tree planting, sometimes because of the profits that people can make out of planting trees. That led me to ask the Scottish Government how much agricultural land in Scotland has been lost to tree planting in the past decade.
This is the answer that I got from the Government:
“Tree Planting is a critical element of the Scottish Government’s plans to tackle the climate emergency and help achieve a net-zero Scotland.
Although data on land use prior to woodland establishment is not available”—
I suggest that the minister picks that up because it should be available—
“tree planting takes place on a range of land types”.—[
, 18 August 2022; S6W-10430.]
The answer then outlines that some of those land types are golf courses and agricultural, sporting and conservation land.
With the food crisis that we have, it is key that the Government sits down, works with NFU Scotland and ensures that we get it right. It is crazy to use land that we could be growing food on to plant trees when there is land that would be suitable for planting trees that is not being used. It all comes down to profit and the profiteering of those who are using the scheme to make money.
It would be remiss of me not to mention an often overlooked yet vital element of forestry and its ability to contribute to net zero targets, which is the role that fungi play in our forest ecosystems. Fungal networks play a critical role in helping to absorb carbon from the environment and can also slow down the speed at which carbon returns from forest soils into the atmosphere, helping forests to keep carbon locked up in trees and soils for longer.
Billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide flow from plants into those fungal networks each year. Those carbon flows help make soils the second largest carbon sink, after oceans. However, in developing forest landscapes, we must be aware of the role that fungi play in benefiting the trees as well as the wider benefits to our environment. That means encouraging increased biodiversity and a wider understanding of the benefits that this entire kingdom of life brings to our world.
Further to that point, research from the University of Stirling, in my region, has made a breakthrough in resolving a key conflict in the world’s quest for net zero, which is how to reconcile tree planting and food production. Dr Paul Thomas’s research in Mexico has found that
“inoculating native trees with an edible mushroom can produce more protein per hectare than pasture-raised beef, while reforesting areas, storing carbon and restoring biodiversity at the same time ... This study presents a whole new way of looking at land use, making it possible to combine food production ... with the carbon sequestration, biodiversity and conservation goals that forestry achieves.”
That work has been pioneered from here in Scotland, at the University of Stirling.
Good progress has been made, but it is clear that we can make a lot more progress and we should be involving everyone—every stakeholder and every key player—if we are to get this right.
I learned last week that a new word had been added to the Collins dictionary: permacrisis. Permacrisis is an extended period in which people live through crises including war, inflation, climate change and political instability. In recent years, we have all been living through permacrisis—crisis upon crisis.
Although war, inflation and political instability are generally temporary, we know that climate change is not temporary and, if action is not taken, it will cause permanent damage to our planet for our future generations. We heard from my colleague Jim Fairlie about the stark realities of climate change in the examples that he gave.
We all have a moral responsibility to do what we can to tackle the climate crisis and we are all aware that world leaders are currently meeting at COP27 in Egypt to take action. My colleague Fiona Hyslop has mentioned some of the commitments at COP27 this week. I would also like to highlight that our First Minister has confirmed another £5 million this week for loss and damage at COP27 and has urged other countries to follow suit. Last year, Scotland became the first developed nation to pledge finance to address loss and damage and now other countries have followed suit, including Denmark. Professor Saleemul Huq, who is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, said:
“The Scottish Government’s leadership in this area, including the latest funding pledge, is welcome and I hope it will prove an inspiration to other countries to take action to provide funding for loss and damage with urgency at COP27.”
Moving on to the debate on forestry, I will quote environmentalist George Monbiot:
“There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself. It’s called … a tree.”
Tree planting is a critical element of the Scottish Government’s plan to tackle the climate emergency and to help achieve a net zero Scotland. Although we are doing well, we need to do more to support the timber industry in Scotland. I think that it is unacceptable that the UK is the second largest net importer of timber in the world, China being the first. I welcome the fact that Scotland has planted 80 per cent of all new woodland in the UK for the past four years, and that the Scottish Government understands the vital importance of tree planting and home-grown wood use to its net zero ambitions and its economy.
We all know that the Scottish Government has an ambitious commitment to reach net zero by 2045, and expanding our forests and woodlands is key to achieving that, as our trees will soak up harmful CO2 from the atmosphere. Currently, Scotland’s trees are sequestrating 7.6 million tonnes of CO2 each year, which is the equivalent of 14 per cent of our gross greenhouse gas emissions. That demonstrates how important the Scottish Government’s woodland expansion plans are in fighting climate change.
I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government will soon publish a new biodiversity strategy for Scotland, which will set out what our natural environment needs to look like by 2045 in order to reverse biodiversity decline and protect our environment. The Government’s motion also reiterates a commitment to increase the use of domestic timber.
Glennon Brothers is a large business that is based in Troon, in my constituency. I have had the pleasure of visiting it several times, and I thank the minister for joining me earlier this year on a visit to see the great work that the company does, as it plays a crucial role in the local economy. It sustainably produces timber from Scottish spruce—I know that Fergus Ewing has mentioned the importance of Scottish spruce—to make Scottish homes, among other products. It then uses the by-products of that process to generate all its own heat and energy. The business is in part supported by the Scottish Government’s fantastic timberlink initiative. In 2021, that initiative saw 52,500 tonnes of timber shipped into Troon harbour—in context, that is about five Eiffel towers’ worth—which takes more than 2,000 lorry movements off the roads between Argyll and Ayrshire, cutting congestion and emissions.
I will take the opportunity to highlight to the minister that businesses such as Glennon Brothers want to grow and expand capacity, and to do that, further investment is required in timberlink. With fuel costs rising and economic uncertainty, there has been an increase in operational costs to run the vessels, which means that there has been a reduction in the tonnage that can be delivered by timberlink into Troon. I highlight that pressing issue of concern to the minister.
The interlinked crises of nature loss and climate change need urgent action across government and society. We have a moral obligation to protect nature and the climate for our future generations. I said at the beginning of my speech that the destruction of the environment and climate change are the biggest threats to our future generations. Woodland expansion is a priority for the Scottish Government, but it is vital that it is carefully planned—and that has been highlighted in a lot of the contributions to the debate. As at 31 March 2022, it is estimated that the area of woodland in the UK is 3.24 million hectares, which represents 13 per cent of the total land area of the whole of the UK, and the percentage of land that is woodland is 19 per cent in Scotland, 15 per cent in Wales, 10 per cent in England and 9 per cent in Northern Ireland.
Scotland, as a small country, is doing really well in this area and we are punching well above our weight. The Scottish Government acknowledges the importance of forestry’s contribution to net zero in Scotland, with new packages such as the £60m nature restoration fund, which supports projects across Scotland that address the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. I also welcome the minister’s funding announcements this afternoon.
We all want to play our part in achieving net zero. That simple magic machine—a tree—will not solve all our problems on its own, but it will make a fair dent in them.
The debate could not have been timelier as COP27 continues in Egypt. If we are to become a truly net zero Scotland, we have to ensure that forestry makes a significant contribution in delivering that. That is why there is much in the Scottish Government’s motion that we welcome, particularly the renewed commitment to increase the annual woodland creation target to 18,000 hectares by 2025. However, members have been right to note the need for us to increase our use of domestic timber and to make commercial forestry more sustainable.
Members have also stressed the need to maintain and develop a highly skilled workforce to ensure that forestry can make a significant contribution to Scotland’s transition to net zero, and we have heard about the continuing injustice of Scotland’s land ownership from Richard Leonard, including how that impacts on our efforts to achieve net zero.
I would like to see a lot more of Scotland’s land in public and community ownership.
The Conservative amendment refers to commercial forestry, which is an issue that I want to address. We have to recognise that the land use sector, which includes forestry, is a major contributor to net emissions. In order to reduce emissions, we have to consider ways to make forest management more sustainable. Currently, commercial forestry is managed largely through the use of the clear fell model, with most or all trees in an area being cut down. The alternative approach would be to manage commercial forestry through the continuous cover model. That would help us to develop structurally, visually and biologically diverse forests, while lessening the impact on soil carbon stocks, which clearly has benefits for our transition to net zero.
I do not think that I have time, sorry.
The Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the use of domestic timber is welcome, because the current situation is unacceptable. Forestry and Land Scotland has highlighted that the UK imports 80 per cent of our annual timber requirement, leaving us in the position of often having to rely on imported wood for house building and other infrastructure projects. The Scottish Government should seek to learn from the example set in countries such as Sweden and Australia, where publicly owned timber companies ensure that a greater proportion of domestic timber is used for domestic house building and infrastructure development.
The Labour amendment emphasises the need to ensure that forestry plans increase biodiversity as well as meet woodland creation targets. We are calling for at least 50 per cent of tree cover expansion in Scotland to comprise native species, given that native tree species provide habitats for our native wildlife. Planting trees on land that is made up of deep peat leads to significant soil carbon losses. That is why England has adopted a 30cm definition of deep peat, which prevents tree cover expansion and limits restocking. Given that Scotland’s current deep peat definition remains at 50cm, I hope to hear from the minister what consideration she has given to adopting the 30cm definition.
Members have already noted the importance of a skilled forestry workforce, which is vital if we are to maximise forestry’s contribution to net zero. Labour has previously called for the creation of a Scottish conservation corps, modelled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of Roosevelt’s new deal. It would help to deliver green jobs and provide a workforce that is dedicated to restoring and preserving Scotland’s natural environment, including our forests.
The Scottish Government has also recently conducted a consultation on proposals for its land reform bill. As other members have highlighted, Scotland’s land ownership is heavily concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few. The emergence of green lairds is a sign of those wealthy few continuing to use Scotland’s land for their own interests, namely, to offset their emissions. The Scottish Government must be bolder and deliver a cap on land ownership. A cap would help to end the injustice of Scotland’s current land ownership, empowering communities and public bodies to acquire land for the common good.
Although today’s debate has, rightly, seen the Scottish Government held to account over missed targets, I believe that many positive proposals have been put forward on the issue. I hope that the Scottish Government will reflect on some of those proposals, to ensure that we have the skilled workforce that we need, that biodiversity is improved and that the use of domestic timber is increased. If we are serious about maximising forestry’s contribution to net zero, the Scottish Government will need to work with all parties, with trade unions and with campaigners to make that a reality.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
I am delighted to close this debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives because achieving our net zero targets is one of the biggest challenges that this country faces. If we get it right, we tackle the climate change emergency; if we get it wrong, future generations will have to pay for a long time.
Forestry will play a key role in delivering those ambitions, and that begs the question: is the Government doing enough in Scotland? I am afraid that the facts speak for themselves, and Mr Ewing will not be surprised to hear me say that, since 2016, the Scottish Government has only twice met its annual forestry planting targets. The new targets of 12,000 hectares in 2020 and 13,500 hectares in 2021 have also failed to be met. Over the past five years, this Government has overseen tree planting on 10,000 hectares fewer than it should have done. That is a huge amount of catching up to do, and we should seriously question whether the Government will be able to make up for lost time.
As we have heard, perhaps the off-market, secret purchase of the 16,500-acre Glenprosen estate in Angus—at a reported cost of £25 million—will help. Perhaps when the Government fails to meet its annual targets, it will just need to grab a few acres from that land bank, to make up for areas where the targets are being missed, and it will then meet its headline targets.
When done by private individuals, off-market deals have always been criticised by the Government, but it appears to be fine for the Government to do such a deal. Most people would view that as double standards, which perhaps epitomises this Government’s dealings with forestry.
Biodiversity and food security are great straplines, but actions need to speak louder than words. If we are trying to achieve net zero, it does not make sense to fail planting targets and take good, food-producing land out of production. Planting trees so that we have to import more food means that we are offshoring our carbon footprint. When the minister goes to Egypt, she will see food, not trees, being grown on the fertile plains of the Nile, which makes eminent sense. We need to be smarter by planting trees where they do not interrupt food production and it is sensible to provide funds to encourage the achievement of planting targets.
What is more, if we plant the right tree in the right place, we do not create monocultures, which is an absolutely vital point. In that way, we will increase our biodiversity and protect species such as capercaillie and goshawks. Capercaillie are on the verge of extinction, and most of that comes down to the fact that the wrong trees have been planted in the wrong places. In addition, we should never forget that it was Forestry Commission policy to shoot capercaillies on sight and destroy their nests.
I turn to some of the points that were made in the debate. I agree with the minister that there is a strategic need for forestry. It is therefore sad that, by 2035, we will have such a dip that we will not have enough trees in Scotland for our timber industry to use.
I agree with what Brian Whittle said about planting the right trees in the right place; we have heard that a lot this afternoon. We also need to make sure that we grow our seedlings in this country, in order to prevent the import of disease.
I also think that Colin Smyth was right to promote timber production, which is really important. His question about green lairds was also important, and this Government and Parliament need to look at that, to work out whether we are getting it right.
I liked Willie Rennie’s comment about Tarzan. I am not sure whether he will take me to meet Tarzan. If he offers to do so, perhaps I should take that up. He was right in what he said about the fact that we cannot eat trees, so we also need to grow food.
Jenni Minto said that there was a need to promote the rainforest. I believe that she was entirely right and that we should encourage its promotion.
Rachael Hamilton stressed the importance of timber production being complementary to food production. She also rightly stressed the importance of deer control. Getting deer under control is absolutely right, but we need to make sure that deer control is not deer eradication. I am often sad to see the cull targets in forests around me, because the average age of the roe deer that are culled is under a year old. That is no life. That is not management; it is extermination.
I do not always say that he is right, but this afternoon, Fergus Ewing was right to talk about speeding up the process of planting and making it easier for planting to be undertaken. We all know and have heard about how difficult it can be.
Fiona Hyslop pointed out the importance of biodiversity, on which I agree with her. Funnily enough, I agree with what Mark Ruskell said about overgrazing, but he fundamentally failed to mention the problems of overgrazing on riparian woodlands where beavers are to be introduced or the fact that there are very few means of controlling them.
On Jim Fairlie’s comment, there is no punishment from me for anything that he said about needing a circular economy in which timber will play a part. Liam Kerr’s comment about failing to achieve planting targets was very true, as was his comment about doing secret land deals: in one breath, the Government is doing that, but in the next breath it criticises it.
Scotland’s forestry sector has a key role to play in combating climate change, but the Government’s forestry strategy needs to be far cleverer and involve more than just growing monoculture trees, which results in good farmland being lost to those trees.
We need to protect biodiversity, and we need to protect our food security. Those two factors are just as important as trees—the Government must see that, because if it does not, it is not seeing the wood for the trees that it so desperately wants to plant at the expense of everything else.
There is no doubt that expanding, restoring and improving our forests and woodlands have a key role in achieving net zero and restoring Scotland’s natural environment. I want to help to grow and sustain the great contribution that forestry in all its guises can make to the environment, people and economy of Scotland.
I thank all the members who have contributed to the debate. It has been very content heavy, so I will try to pick out some key themes. Unfortunately, I will not be able to come back to every member who spoke.
I can see some top themes of discussion. There are different views in the chamber about what the mix of planting should be in terms of native woodlands and commercial plantations. That is definitely the subject of an on-going conversation, but I am sure that we all agree that that needs to end up with the right tree—
I am sorry; I am really short on time and I have a lot of content to cover.
That needs to end up with the right tree in the right place. Unfortunately, that can make it challenging to speed up the planning, because getting the right tree in the right place means having consultations, doing the science and doing the right work behind it.
We have some opportunities coming up in the agriculture bill. I hear much concern in the chamber about potential conflicts between food production and forestry. I do not see that there are conflicts here. Although we have some good projects for trees on farms and agroforestry, we also have the agriculture bill—
I have a lot to get through, so I am trying to cover everything that was covered in the debate in a great hurry.
We all agree that we need to ensure that we have sustainable food production in Scotland at the same time as we expand our forestry. Therefore, I think that we can all agree that that is something that we will work on, and the agriculture bill is our opportunity to do so.
Another key issue that was brought up is the challenge of publicly funding our natural environment restoration. We will definitely have to have private finance involved, but we need to manage that correctly so that we do not have the situation with green lairds in the future.
There has been a recognition of the skills that are needed and the forestry employment opportunities, as well as the thriving growth industry that forestry presents for Scotland. I was also very enthused by hearing many members speak about the biodiversity elements of forestry, including riparian planting, which is so important to wild salmon—as colleagues noted—and beavers.
I was very interested in Alex Rowley’s comments on alternative food production in forestry, and several colleagues mentioned soils as well.
I will come back to Rachael Hamilton and Liam Kerr on the matter of Glenprosen estate. The estate had been offered to a limited number of prospective buyers on a competitive tender basis, and prospective purchasers were bound by a confidentiality agreement. Forestry and Land Scotland’s bid was accepted by the seller. For the information of members, I can say that the seller had previously run Glenprosen as a sporting estate and was in the process of winding down their business. The acquisition offers exciting opportunities for land use change, community and partnership working, woodland creation, biodiversity and peatland restoration, which are consistent with the Scottish Government’s climate objectives and in line with the Bute house agreement.
There are currently five employees at Glenprosen, and FLS engaged with them as soon as it was legally able to do so. Three have been offered tenancies with FLS, one already resides on a neighbouring estate and will continue to do so, and the fifth has found employment elsewhere.
Several members mentioned land reform. Colin Smyth, Richard Leonard and, unusually, Liam Kerr, are very keen on land reform in Scotland. Màiri McAllan, who is sitting beside me, is the minister for land reform, and she will be introducing an ambitious bill that aims to tackle the exact issue that Richard Leonard has raised—the concentration of land ownership in Scotland. I noticed that Mercedes Villalba also referenced that work. I hope that she has input into the consultation on land reform.
I have got to get through quite a lot of material—sorry.
It is wrong to suggest that the forestry grant scheme supports only large-scale woodland creation projects. Around 50 per cent of recent applications to that scheme are for projects that are less than 20 hectares in size. Those are mostly from farmers, crofters and small woodland owners.
Our starting point for forestry must be protecting and restoring what we have. A particular priority for this Government is safeguarding Scotland’s rainforests on the western seaboard, where high levels of rainfall and relatively mild year-round temperatures provide just the right conditions for an abundance of wildlife, including some of the world’s rarest bryophytes and lichens. Forestry and Land Scotland manages a third of Scotland’s rainforest. Recently, I announced £1.3 million of additional funding to support rainforest conservation.
I noticed that Liam Kerr made a comparison with Ireland. He will recall that Ireland is an independent country. That shows how a small independent country that has more powers can do more for its economy and for its forestry department.
In Scotland, we undertake rhododendron management, the removal and introduction of tree species and effective deer management. Some colleagues spoke about overgrazing. Effective deer management is critical to managing that issue.
All that is part of a wider effort to rapidly expand our native woodlands and deliver landscape-scale restoration. That will be further supported through the refresh of the forestry grant scheme that my colleague Màiri McAllan announced today, meaning that we can deliver even more for our environment through that essential scheme.
Last year, we surpassed our native woodland target. I put on record my thanks to all who were involved in that enormous effort.
No. I am sorry, but I have a lot to get through in the time available to me.
We need to do more and we will be looking at how we can do that as part of the development of the Scottish biodiversity strategy and delivery plan, as well as at what we can do to improve the biodiversity and resilience of our whole forest resource.
I cannot overstate the importance of building resilience. Diversification of our forests is key to making them more resilient to environmental changes as a result of climate change. Extreme droughts and storms, such as last year’s storm Arwen, which toppled 2,000,000m³ of timber, can cause widespread damage to forests and impact on the forest industry and the stored carbon in the forest.
The positive environmental perspective of multipurpose forestry has come about in recent decades through ensuring that there is support for afforestation. Forest management and harvesting is linked to the UK forestry standard, which underpins the delivery of forestry policy across Scotland. All forestry plans and woodland creation targets must meet the requirement of the standard.
As minister for tree health, I am acutely aware of the impact that pests and diseases already have on our forests. In recent years, the phytophthora infection of larch and ash dieback have had a dramatic and on-going impact on landscapes and forests, reducing the palette of species that we can work with. There are also costs to local authorities and other land managers.
Sorry, but I have to get through my material and I am short on time.
Protecting Scotland’s forests from damage or destruction that is caused by tree pests and diseases is a key part of ensuring that they reach their full potential in terms of carbon storage and climate change mitigation.
Our policy is to encourage good plant health and biosecurity practices. Scottish Forestry staff are actively monitoring pests and diseases within and beyond our borders.
Several members talked about the importing of saplings. We are very stretched on resource to properly inspect—
The inspection of imported saplings has been greatly inconvenienced by Brexit, which means that our resources in plant health to ensure that we are actively preventing the importation of diseases with saplings are very stretched.
All that highlights the risk of single-species plantations: an industry that is dependent on single species is much more vulnerable to diseases.
I thank Brian Whittle for alerting us all to the importance of biodiversity. He will be grateful to know that there is a Scottish Government minister for that—it is me. The Conservative amendment in the name of Brian Whittle does make some important points. I particularly welcome the recognition of the importance of—
— the biodiversity strategy that I am currently developing. Unfortunately, the amendment does not recognise the achievements of our own forestry sector or the challenges that we have faced in the past year because of Covid, so we will not be able to support it.
We will accept the Labour amendment in Colin Smyth’s name, which makes some valuable additional points—