Why Woodland Expansion Needs a Better Decision-making Tree – Dr Andrew Weatherall MICFor and Vicki Swales

Dr Andrew Weatherall MICFor, Principal Policy Officer (Woodlands and Forestry), RSPB and Vicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy, RSPB Scotland share their views on how we should approach “the right trees in the right places” and the value of a decision-making tree to determine land use choices.

Andrew and Vicki will be speaking at our upcoming Scottish Conference: The Role of Trees in a Sustainable Future.

Every forester and every woodland ecologist has heard it, “the right trees in the right places”, probably most of us have said it too, but what does it actually mean?

How many of us actually infer that this means there is also potential for the wrong trees, in the wrong places.

There’s another adage which says the best time to plant a tree (or I’d add ‘encourage natural regeneration) was 20 years ago. That’s certainly true but unless it was planted in the right place and for the right reasons, it’s possible that decision to plant could have been a wrong one. Place is crucial, and so is purpose.

Reasons for establishing trees, woods and forests change over time, but can currently generally be listed as for nature’s recovery, for climate adaptation and mitigation, for people and yes, of course, for timber production. But, if the place being considered already has high value for nature, for climate adaptation and/or mitigation or is highly productive farmland, why would you consider changing the land use to tree, woodland or forest cover?

As a landowner, agent, or investment company, that answer might well be to make money, a profit from the land. There is nothing at all wrong with that, and in our current applications focussed approach to woodland creation, that is incentivised by Government grants. But what benefit does the Government get from providing those grants? Or more specifically, what public goods or value accrue?

The traditional answer is wood security. The Forestry Commission was formed after the First World War, in 1919, after Lloyd George said that Britain ‘more nearly lost the war for want of timber than of anything else’. The Commission’s initial purpose was to provide a strategic reserve of timber; priorities have changed over time, but the UK is still not self-sufficient and is the second largest importer of wood in the world. As well as wood security issues, that raises important concerns about the offshoring of our environmental footprint. However, in Scotland, analysis undertaken by Scottish Forestry has shown that Scotland is actually self-sufficient in timber, as the then Forestry Minister, Màiri McAllan, stated in the Forestry (Contribution to Net Zero Scotland) debate in the Scottish Parliament on 9th November 2022:

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.

So that brings us back to the question, what public benefit does the Scottish Government get from continuing to provide substantial amounts of grant for woodland creation? The answer must be that it helps the Government achieve its own objectives for nature, climate and people, i.e. much more than just timber. If this is the case, it is absolutely vital that woodland creation is considered within the context of the Government’s Land Use Strategy and is enabled where it can deliver the best outcomes for the public money spent. Thus, great care is needed to determine whether any land use change arising will deliver net benefit to society, or may, however inadvertently, adversely affect the afore-mentioned pre-existing high nature, carbon or community value of the land, or the production of other commodities such as food. All this means there are indeed some “wrong places” for woodland creation. So, it is vital that Government identifies the right places first, then what kind of tree cover is most appropriate in those places to best deliver public goods (i.e. why to incentivise planting on them). Only then should the “right trees” be selected, a relatively straightforward process for professional foresters and woodland ecologists using their expertise and local knowledge along with correct use of Forest Research’s excellent Ecological Site Classification Decision Support System. A decision-making tree that starts with place and purpose and then defines tree will, ultimately, enable better land use choices to be made in response to the nature and climate emergency.

About the Authors

Dr Andrew Weatherall MICFor, leads woodlands and forestry policy for the RSPB. Vicki Swales leads on land use policy for RSPB Scotland.

Andrew and Vicki will be speaking at our upcoming Scottish Conference: The Role of Trees in a Sustainable Future

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