THE UK imports 80% of the wood it uses and as global demand for timber continues to grow rapidly, we know existing supplies of wood in Scotland are forecast to reduce from the 2040s to the 2060s.

This scenario is a real challenge as Scotland, and the UK, seeks to use more wood to decarbonise industries like house building and construction, but it’s also a real opportunity for anyone who is planting new forests now.

Despite the need for timber – and the opportunity that provides – and the cross-party support at Holyrood for more tree planting, the drive to create more new woodlands can still attract surprisingly aggressive opposition.

A politician in southern Scotland was the latest to ‘put the boot in’, suggesting that farmers in his constituency saw the Scottish Government’s tree planting policy as the greatest threat to hill sheep farming.

While I respect his right to express the views of those he speaks to, I was confused by the context. His comments came as part of an interview regarding the trade deal with New Zealand, which many farmers in Scotland have expressed concern about. There are also broader changes coming down the road as Scotland develops an alternative to the Common Agricultural Policy, likely to focus more funding on environmental benefits – and the pressure for agriculture to go further to help meet Scotland’s climate change ambitions.

Meeting net zero in Scotland by 2045 (five years ahead of the rest of the UK) is incredibly challenging. To meet that, emissions from farming will have to be reduced significantly and unavoidable emissions be offset by other activities – including tree planting.

At a time of huge transition, we need to get away from a polarised ‘forestry versus farming’ debate. That approach doesn’t help anyone and doesn’t reflect what is actually happening on the ground.

When giving evidence on a number of occasions to Scottish Parliament committees, I’ve repeatedly made the point that farming shouldn’t simply be seen as the emitter and the forestry sector as the white knight (or green knight?) that sequesters carbon.

Farmers should get the carbon recognition as well as the financial benefits of tree planting, eg a short-term firewood supply as woodland is thinned out to deliver a better long-term crop, then the sale of the mature timber into the market.

It’s easy to think that the sale of the crop is a long way down the road, as trees take decades to grow (depending on species) but many farmers already have patches of trees on their land that can deliver timber to market, and trees provide valuable shelter for animals enabling food production to be maintained on less land.

At one of the last face-to-face events I attended before the first pandemic lockdown, in early 2020, Tom Pate described how he realised a far greater price than expected for timber from patches of woodland from a family farm near Kilry, Angus.

The money raised from the timber sale, alongside generous grant support for new planting, allowed the family to link up different areas of woodland and plant more on poorer grazing land.

“Forestry was a headache and a hassle but it became the catalyst for the rejuvenation of the whole farm," Mr Pate said. “We have been able to improve the infrastructure of the farm greatly, and also add to the capital value.”

There are examples of farmers adding areas of woodland to their farm all over Scotland – and making their business stronger and more diversified for the long-term. But at the end of the day, it’s still a working farm – it’s not a forest.

The Scottish Forestry advice on farm woodland lays out the scale of the potential: “With 75% of farmland in Scotland classified as Less Favoured Area and with current uncertainties over the future of agricultural subsidies, there are significant opportunities for landowners to maximise business productivity by adding value to underproductive land via Woodland Creation. New woodlands have the potential to create an additional sustainable long term income stream and an important source of low carbon, low cost woodfuel, at the same time as realising tax, livestock and crop productivity and environmental benefits (including helping to manage your businesses carbon footprint).”

Case studies of farmers who have benefited from tree planting were collected by Confor for its own short Farm Forestry publication. The report shows that by diversifying a farm holding through productive tree planting, there is scope to provide shelter for livestock, establish a future income stream from selling wood, and make a real contribution to net zero – and to be recognised for that.

The focus on environmental outcomes has never been higher with COP26 in Scotland - but it won’t go away and there will be continued pressure on rural Scotland to do more, not less.

At the same time, the world needs wood to decarbonise and to provide the many everyday products we all need in our lives – including fencing for livestock.

We need to grow more of that wood here, and we need to plant more trees on farms as part of that.

Tree planting isn’t for everybody; I get that. All I ask is that the farming community takes a look at the opportunity and sees tree planting as just that - an opportunity and not a threat.

  • Confor represents almost 1500 forestry and wood-using businesses across the UK.