GROWING ACCEPTANCE of forestry as part of a diverse rural business is helping to drive tree planting to a modern-day high in Scotland.

Planting trees on poorer-quality farmland that might be seen as a 'headache' is increasingly happening right across Scotland.

Figures released at the start of March by Scottish Forestry suggested that the annual government target of 12,000 hectares of new woodland creation in the financial year 2020-21 would be surpassed. This would be a slight uptick in planting from the 11,000-plus hectares planted in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, a significant increase on what had been planted in any year since 2001.

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, said: “This is not all down to the large forestry companies. We have had significant interest from smaller woodland owners, farmers and crofters who are planting almost 200 of the 320 woodland creation schemes we are funding this year.”

One of Scotland’s leading forest management companies said Mr Ewing’s comments would resonate with those delivering tree planting.

“There is a lot of positivity about forestry among the farmers I am dealing with,” said David Robertson, investment and business development director with Scottish Woodlands Ltd.

“Farmers are seeing real benefits from the conversion and streamlining of parts of their properties. They are diversifying with clear purpose by taking poor quality land out of agricultural production and planting trees to make the farm operation more economic."

Mr Robertson said while some farmers were putting in small parcels of trees as shelter belts, it made economic sense to plant slightly larger areas of two hectares or more, which were also straightforward to access.

“Most farmers have an area of land that is a bit of a headache,” he said. “It might be very difficult to drain, or cost a lot to maintain and still result in a pretty poor agricultural output. These are the kind of areas that we are seeing an interest in moving over to trees.”

He said there was tree planting on farms happening all over Scotland, with a lot of activity in the south, central Scotland and Aberdeenshire. Although most of the tree planting was on upland hill farms, there was activity on poor-quality land on all types of farms, he added.

“It is usually to do with simple economics,” said Mr Robertson. “Each farm is different, but in general, there is usually a piece of land that is marginal or downright uneconomic, for a variety of reasons. With the positive support regimes to plant trees, forestry is a very good option.”

Mr Ewing hailed the planting figures as a 'remarkable achievement' in what he described as a "year of unprecedented adversity - with Covid, Brexit and heavy, persistent snow at the beginning of this year.”

He added: “There are 13,000 hectares of projects approved this financial year, and over 6000 hectares for next year already approved. It’s great news that we are on track to deliver on our planting target.”

As a result of the challenges, especially the recent snow, Scottish Forestry is offering increased flexibility to allow claimants to maximise planting by March 31.

While Forestry Grant Scheme Claims will still need to be submitted to Scottish Forestry by the end of March, a further period of two months until the end of May is being allowed for supporting documents and evidence to be submitted. This will allow projects to continue planting up until the end of March and two further months to complete site surveys, mapping and prepare the documents needed to support their claims.

Scottish Forestry is due to issue a Forestry Grant Scheme (FGS) update note, providing more details on the arrangements for flexibility, which will cover all FGS 2020 claims.

Chief Executive of the Seafield Estate in Moray and Strathspey, Will Anderson, said the snow had been a massive headache for both the winter tree planting season and getting timber out of the forest.

“This bad weather, the worst in my experience since the notorious winter of 2010-11, set us back several weeks,” he said. “It also made it hard to move wood out of the forest – getting timber lorries into the forest to collect the logs and even finding those logs when they were hidden by deep snow.”

National Manager for Scotland for the forestry and wood trade body Confor, Jamie Farquhar, said: “Everyone in the industry is very encouraged by the positive announcement about tree planting. It’s also gratifying to see such a range of different planting schemes – and an increasing understanding by farmers that planting trees on less productive parts of a farm makes good business sense.

“As well as increasing the productivity of farms, tree planting creates rural jobs and secures future wood supply for the important wood processing sector across Scotland, and to deliver significant environmental benefits too.”

Mr Robertson added: “In the year that global environmental summit COP26 comes to Scotland, there is growing interest in planting for carbon benefits - and a lot more opportunities to come.”