EUROPE'S Common Agricultural Policy "shut forestry out" of UK rural policy thinking for decades – but Brexit offers a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance to direct more support towards tree-planting.

Visiting a sawmill near Fort William this week, Robin Walker, a Minister in Westminster's newly created Department for Exiting the European Union, heard from Forestry trade body Confor about the issues affecting the forestry and timber sector.

Welcoming the opportunity to meet the minister face-to-face at such a crucial time, Confor's chief executive Stuart Goodall stressed that the forestry and wood processing sector employs almost 80,000 people across the UK and delivers £2 billion in economic value every year, despite the land competition created by CAP incentives for farming.

Mr Goodall said: "As the UK leaves the Common Agricultural Policy, there will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to design rural policy and funding support that meets local needs. The CAP has shut forestry out, but we now have an opportunity to unlock jobs and investment, reduce the impact of climate change and flooding, and provide an array of benefits for wildlife, recreation and leisure.

"Forestry and wood processing’s enormous contribution to the rural areas of the UK means that it must play a central role in future Government thinking about how policy and funding structures will look after Brexit."

For his part, Mr Walker said: "The UK Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that we have the strongest possible rural economy after Brexit and forestry will be a key part of the discussions as to how we achieve that. That is why I was delighted to visit the BSW mill and to hear from Confor about their views on the upcoming negotiations and vision for the future of forestry in the UK."

Hamish Macleod of sawmill owners BSW Timber hosted the ministerial tour: "As a rural employer, BSW Timber has a critical role to play in maintaining local wealth and employment. This is a timely opportunity to highlight the success of our business in Scotland and across the UK, and the many challenges we face on a day-to-day basis.

“We have placed great emphasis in the last few years on working downstream with the UK construction sector to grow markets for UK timber, and we must now ensure that the business confidence is underpinned by continued commitment by UK Government in the forestry and wood processing sector. This gives us the confidence to continue to invest in our mills, creating more jobs and wealth for the communities which we serve.”

The sawmill visit was part of a series of fact-finding visits being made by Mr Walker ahead of the detailed negotiations which will follow the triggering of Article 50.