Scotland needs a defined approach to forestry

If Scottish agriculture is to be part of the solution to climate change, while achieving ambitious food and drink targets, there must be a clearly defined approach to woodland expansion and forestry on agricultural land writes NFU Scotland Vice President Andrew Connon.

Tree planting is seen by many as one of the solutions to Scotland achieving its Climate Change targets by 2030.  The Scottish Government has set targets for afforestation - 12,000 hectares for 2020/21 rising to 18,000 hectares by 2024-25.  

In our recent Scottish Parliamentary Elections hustings, all main parties signalled their intent to increase tree cover.  That fixation with planting trees as the route to tackling climate change is naïve at best, is certainly short sighted, and has the potential to be damaging in other economic, environmental and social aspects.

At the same time, the Scottish Government supports Scotland Food and Drink’s ambitious targets of doubling the value of the food and drink sector by 2030 to £30 billion. How do you square that circle?

With multiple pressures on agricultural land use, NFU Scotland members are rightly concerned about the current trend.  I am receiving fresh calls every week from despairing farmers and crofters across Scotland telling me of another farm destined for tree planting.

These farms are not restricted to hill and upland farming, with a recent example being 1000 acres at Ellon in Aberdeenshire, previously used for grass and arable cropping, going down to trees having been purchased by an overseas investor.

I am aware of numerous other examples including a South Aberdeenshire farm recently bought as an investment by a non-agricultural business to be planted.  This farm in the past stocked 300 suckler cows, 800 breeding ewes and grew spring barley.  A Kinross farmer also recently called despairing at the loss to trees of 270 neighbouring acres used for silage and grazing which in turn threatens the viability of his business and the future for his son going forward in farming.

All this is in addition to the large number of hill and upland farms, as well as entire estates, being purchased with the sole purpose of forestry.

The terminology now being used by non-farming buyers to justify the purchase includes: “carbon positive, carbon capture, carbon credits, carbon economy and carbon trading.”

However, the more of Scotland’s limited productive land that shifts from farming to forestry, the more we are likely to simply offshore our emissions or even increase our carbon footprint.

Land acquisitions for forestry, combined with the potential for carbon trading are already creating inflated land prices that are out with the reach of commercial farming activities whilst restricting opportunities for new entrants to the industry.  

NFU Scotland recognises that tree planting, in the right place, has a key role to play in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises. We are in favour of farm woodlands that integrate with existing farm enterprises offering benefits from mixed broadleaf/hardwood and conifer plantings without compromising food production and farm business viability regardless of land ownership or tenure.

NFU Scotland remains opposed to whole farm afforestation of a commercial scale - greater than 30 hectares of conifers - that reduces agricultural activity and food production whilst potentially accelerating land abandonment.

It is essential that we get a balanced approach before it is too late. Agriculture plays a key role in underpinning the viability of our vibrant rural communities. Reckless planting will affect agricultural viability and the critical mass of the industry with detrimental knock-on effects for the processing sector, employment and food production.

Once planted, the land is lost from agricultural production forever. We cannot allow such an ill-thought-out approach to continue!. In February, Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing was left in no doubt at an NFU Scotland board meeting of the agricultural industry’s thoughts, and he did acknowledge that Scottish Government “would work with us to find a balance”.

The next Scottish Government must be challenged and be prepared to have a rethink at the earliest opportunity before catastrophic damage is done to our industry.

Author: Andrew J Connon

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Walter H Douglas

1092 days ago

It has taken a while but I fully welcome this clear policy statement from NFUS. Well done and hopefully we can keep putting this message over to politicians and others. For too long NFUS didn't fully confront this issue.
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About The Author

Andrew J Connon

Andrew runs a small commercial sheep flock on their farm in Ellon, Aberdeenshire along with his wife Pauline, daughter and son. Andrew has been a member of NFU Scotland for 20 years with New Deer branch and is a former branch chair. He has been on the North East Regional Board for several years having been elected a Vice-Chair of the region in 2017 before taking on the North East Regional Chair role in January 2020.

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