In July this year, I took up a permanent role with Forestry Commission Scotland, filling the newly created post of Woodland Creation Officer with FCS Central Conservancy. In making this role permanent, FCS has emphasised the importance of woodland creation in delivering the Scottish Government’s ambitious climate change targets and the firm commitment to supporting landowners to realise the potential benefits of integrating forestry into their existing rural business.

The Scottish Government targets include the delivery of 10,000 hectares of new woodland creation per annum, moving incrementally to a target of 15,000 hectares per annum by 2025. Woodland creation is being recognised by the government as a game-changing means for climate change mitigation and environmental conservation, which could also provide many opportunities for the farming and agriculture industries.

As an ex-dairy farmer’s daughter with a keen interest in environmental conservation, I want to help landowners diversify their incomes and maximise the productivity of their land. In times of falling incomes from traditional agriculture and in the face of uncertainty over the future of subsidies, we need to take measures to ensure that agriculture is a sustainable industry. Supporting the government with its climate change targets whilst achieving this is a bonus in my role at FCS.

Having worked in various positions related to forestry at FCS, and more recently, the Central Scotland Green Network Trust (CSGNT), I have come to realise that integrating forestry into existing rural businesses can be very beneficial for landowners. The government’s current grant package, offered under the Forestry Grant Scheme, provides generous financial incentives to help those wishing to realise these opportunities.

Landowners in Scotland can receive grants of up to £6210 per hectare towards the costs of new woodland planting, with monies for fencing and tree protection available in addition to this. Landowners located within the CSGN area may also be eligible for a special uplift contribution of up to £2500 per hectare, dependent upon location. Land planted under the Forestry Grant Scheme remains eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme.

Woodland creation offers opportunities to add value to under-productive land, and in the process, produces a long-term and sustainable additional tax-free income stream, diversifying agricultural businesses, as well as producing a source of low-cost wood fuel to reduce heating costs.

In addition, there are wide-ranging non-timber benefits to be realised from woodland creation. Whilst not financially quantifiable, they support optimum business efficiency by, for example, providing shelter for livestock to improve liveweight gain and reduce postnatal deaths in lambs; helping with disease control, including liver fluke; and decreasing run-off and erosion rates on adjacent fields.

A Woodland Trust Scotland report has shown that shelter belts can increase wheat yields by at least 3.5% due to more efficient water usage. At the same time, they contribute to flood risk and climate change mitigation, and support overall biodiversity, natural pollination and pest control.

Whilst the potential for integrating forestry into farming to increase overall business productivity is starting to be better understood in Scotland, the key challenge in this role is the continuing perception that forestry comes at the expense of agricultural productivity. Over the past year, I’ve held numerous woodland creation events, providing advice for those looking to integrate forestry on their land, reassuring people that this is not the case. The right tree in the right place can, in fact, enhance productivity.

As mentioned, it can also be difficult to quantify the non-timbers benefits of woodland creation, which presents a challenge when weighing up the economic case for converting agricultural land to permanent woodland.

Moving forward, my main priority is to help landowners better understand the opportunities for the integration of farming with forestry. With the prospect of future agricultural subsidies being linked more to productivity and the provision of environmental goods, the existence of a very generous forestry grants package, and a strong, growing demand for domestic timber, the argument for integrating forestry into an existing agricultural business has never looked stronger.