Scottish Daily Mail
HELLISH PROOF MONEY DOES GROW ON TREES
Landowners are cashing in on the drive to reforest Scotland (helped by £280m in handouts) A green revolution... or sowing the seeds of an eco disaster?
IT was the sheer scale of it that stopped Matt Cross in his tracks. Row upon row of tiny saplings perched on the spoil from deep slashes in the hillside for as far as the eye could see. Where once sheep and cattle grazed on grassy uplands, now tiny conifers – Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and Norway spruce – were taking root, ready to grow into looming pillars of ramrod-straight productive timber.
Of course, Mr Cross had heard about the new commercial tree plantation at what everyone knew locally as Milton Hill, a species-rich area of grassland home to nesting birds near his home in Barr, South Ayrshire.
Yet, even to a man used to living in one of the most densely forested parts of the country, actually seeing it was enough to take his breath away. Clicking away with his mobile’s camera, he posted the images later on social media under the banner: ‘People have the wrong idea about what large-scale tree planting is like.
‘Here is a photo tour inside a new commercial plantation.’
The striking images capture an unsettling landscape: a new road of crushed stone built to facilitate the movement of men and heavy machinery. One picture shows the rolling slopes criss-crossed by deep drainage trenches, another suggests the ‘construction of roads, passing places, etc, creates huge spoil heaps like this one all over the hillside’, while a third reveals ‘one of a number of quarries on site where the rock for the road is extracted’.
In a stark sentence, Mr Cross concludes: ‘This is happening on a huge scale all across southern Scotland. It is a grant-funded rampage of destruction.’
The language may be incendiary, but the remark goes to the root of the matter. Scotland is certainly in the grip of a tree-planting frenzy, whipped up by those in power as a key to achieving ambitious climate change goals.
Indeed, the Scottish Government has set bold targets for afforestation (large-scale treeplanting), accelerating from 12,000 hectares – almost 30,000 acres – last year (2020-21) to 18,000 hectares, or 44,000 acres, a year by 2024-25. In declaring a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who will host the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, put the drive to becoming a carbonneutral country with ‘net zero’ emissions by 2045 at the heart of SNP policy.
And since trees capture carbon, runs the logic, trees are good.
As a result, afforestation has become big business, with ministers breathing down the neck of Scottish Forestry to dole out vast sums of public cash through the Forestry Grants Scheme to those queueing to stick trees in the ground.
Since its inception in 2015, more than £268million has been distributed to tree-planting schemes. A further £150million of taxpayers’ money will help to fund the next five years. Those applying for grants range from farmers keen to diversify their holding with a few acres of mixed broadleaf woodland to faceless investment funds, who see buying up huge tracts of farmland as the next sure bet.
Farmers’ leaders have become so concerned at this trend they have warned that tree-planting could trigger ‘a new Clearances’, with traditional agriculture and its related industries simply priced off the land.
For Mr Cross, 40, a writer and blogger on environmental issues, the worry is more immediate.
Milton Hill is five minutes up the road from the house he has built
Rampage of destruction on a huge scale
in the small conservation village of Barr. Last week, he and his neighbours discovered that another large hill, Auchensoul Hill, which dominates the western skyline above the village, has been bought by a commercial firm with the intention of planting it.
‘There is a lot of anger and resistance to that plan, because it would have such significant visual and environmental impacts,’ he said.
He had known about the Milton Hill scheme, once a farm called Daljedburgh, for some time as anyone seeking permission from Scottish Forestry to plant must notify neighbours and the community council as part of the application process.
It is managed by forestry firm Scottish Woodlands, a former workers’ cooperative which has grown to become one of the UK’s leading players with a £100million annual turnover and a client list including farmers, forest owners, traditional estates and investment companies. Its company logo is a tree which curls into the tail of a pound sign.
Mr Cross said: ‘We were notified, but I only recently visited as I was passing but I was shocked by what I saw. The intensity of ground preparation and the level of infrastructure, drainage and roads they put in is quite something.’
Old Daljedburgh farm is vast – so vast that commercial conifers, including Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and Norway spruce, may cover 127 hectares (314 acres). But that only accounts for around 36 per cent of the total site’s 353 hectares (870 acres). A further 20 per cent is planted with a mix of native Scots pine, mixed broadleaves and native broadleaves.
Almost half remains unplanted for reasons of biodiversity and ‘cultural interest’ or because there are areas of peat more than 50cm deep (20in), which are protected from commercial development.
Mr Cross said: ‘Commercial coniferous forestry can be very hard on soil systems – if you grow trees really fast, you can take a lot out of the ground. When the trees come up, it has a huge impact on biodiversity and bird life, particularly ground-nesters like black grouse and curlews that won’t live in forestry.’
He added: ‘Barr is a very heavily afforested area and people here talk about the speed now with which the river rises and falls.
Instead of rainfall filtering slowly through grass and moss like a giant sponge, everything moves rapidly down through forestry drainage.’
What annoys Mr Cross, who has lived in Barr for ten years with wife Felicity, 40, and daughters Ivy, seven, and five-year-old Heather, is any notion he is motivated by nimbyism: ‘I estimate that for every single person living in Barr parish, we have had 4,000 trees planted in the past five years. I think it would be hard to argue that people here are not doing their bit.
‘We are not anti-forestry. I understand 100 per cent there has to be a major effort to tackle climate change, and part of that is by planting trees, which is one really powerful tool for fighting climate change. But it must be the right tree planted in the right way in the right place. You’ve got to balance forestry plantations against the negative effects they have on local communities.
‘Why should we have to give up the last piece of open ground here for a commercial forest? Auchensoul is where we draw the line.’
Auchensoul Hill was owned by the late farmer and politician, Sir
Alex Fergusson, a former Presiding Officer of the Scottish parliament and Tory MSP, whose family opted to sell off the land following his death in 2018. It is understood to have been bought in 2019 by an unnamed investment company and will also be managed by Scottish Woodlands.
The villagers have started a petition aimed at preventing their hill disappearing under conifers. ‘International investment funds don’t buy large amounts of land to lose money on it. Without the grants scheme, large-scale forestry isn’t viable. So something is going to get planted on that hill, we know that,’ said Mr Cross.
‘But Scottish Woodlands have worked with other communities before to work out the best possible model of planting with a suitable mix of native broadleaf trees. We are confident we can do that here too.’
Petition organiser Lindsey Tyrer, 39, has lived most of her life in Barr, which is less than a mile from the start of the vast Galloway Forest Park, the UK’s largest forest and its first designated Dark Sky Park.
Ms Tyrer is more concerned about sunlight. ‘Planting the top of
Will they still come if the hill is covered in trees?
Auchensoul Hill will decrease sunlight for the whole village, as the sun sets behind this fell,’ she said.
‘It will affect the air flow to the village and cause more damp air for villagers, some of whom suffer with health conditions that will be badly affected by this.’
Auchensoul is also the route of a popular walking track bringing tourist pounds to the village cafe and shop. ‘Will they still come if the hill is covered in trees and the beautiful scenic views are hidden?’ she asked.
Scottish Woodlands stressed the project is at ‘an early stage’ and that it would work closely with the community to resolve any issues, a requirement of receiving its permission to plant.
The company refuted any criticism of its working practices, insisting it complies with the highest professional standards.
David Robertson, the company’s director of investment and business development, pointed out that, aside from trees’ importance in tackling climate change, the UK currently imports 80 per cent of the wood it uses and with global demand estimated to triple by 2050, there was a growing gap between supply and demand. He
said: ‘The UK needs to grow more of its own wood and not simply rely on imports – which will become more expensive as demand for wood rises, and inevitably put pressure on more fragile forests elsewhere in the world.’
Some remain to be convinced. The residents of Carsphairn, Kirkcudbrightshire, are facing being overlooked by about four square miles of new commercial forestry planting proposals – none involving Scottish Woodlands, it should be said.
Carsphairn Community Council chairman Liz Holmes has questioned whether local people benefit from such schemes, saying that few local jobs are created and coniferous forests offer little recreational use. ‘If public money is being used to subsidise these private plantations then communities should surely be benefiting,’ she said.
In Barr, Mr Cross said just one of its 260 residents is employed in forestry, as a felling contractor.
As land is squeezed by the green dream, applications for tree-planting keep flooding in. Scottish Forestry, which grants permissions for planting and felling and also holds the grant scheme’s purse strings, confirmed that planting has soared despite Covid and bad weather.
About 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) of new woodland was planted in the past two years, equivalent to about 44million trees. In fact, about 80 per cent of all UK planting is north of the Border.
A Scottish Forestry spokesman said: ‘The vast majority of applications for forestry grants are from smaller landowners – mainly farmers – as they are planting trees for woodfuel, for shelter for livestock, to reduce their carbon footprint and to help boost biodiversity on the farms.’
Nevertheless, farmers’ leaders harbour deep reservations about large-scale tree-planting.
NFU Scotland vice-president Andrew Connon branded the Government’s ‘fixation’ with tree-planting as the route to tackling climate change as ‘naïve at best’.
He said he received calls ‘every week’ from despairing farmers and crofters across
Scotland detailing farms destined for tree planting, including a 1,000-acre grass and arable farm at Ellon, Aberdeenshire, which was bought by an overseas investor, and a Kinross-shire farmer fretting at the loss of 110 neighbouring hectares (270 acres) used for silage and grazing which in turn threatens the viability of his business and his own son’s farming future.
Mr Connon said: ‘Financial institutions and non-farming businesses are now buying tens of thousands of hectares, either to make money or to enter the world of carbon trading or to tick a box and offset their carbon footprint. But this is driving up the price of land, which means opportunities for youth getting into agriculture is going to be stifled.
‘We need to move quickly to redress the balance but at the moment forestry is displacing farmers and crofters and it’s almost like the Clearances coming again.’
The NFUS, he said, supports smallerscale mixed native plantations, which help farms diversify and enhance biodiversity while continuing to produce good quality, sustainable local food.
He warned: ‘If you plant massive hillsides in forestry, which create a sterile environment with no real wildlife in it, workers will come in from outwith the area to plant them and then someone else will come in 20-odd years later and fell them. And in between, there’s no vibrant rural economy, no people on those farms and crofts and... you’ll end up with a desert of nothing.’
The Scottish Government said: ‘Treeplanting presents us with the opportunity to help set a robust course towards net zero by 2045, creating jobs and removing more carbon from the atmosphere.’ With ministers so firmly behind it, the march of the conifers appears unstoppable.
A sterile environment with no real wildlife in it