The Scottish Government’s ambitious tree planting programme has been called into question after more than half of young trees planted at a highland site died in less than a year.

Around 56% of the Scots pine planted at the much-publicised Lost Forest site near Aviemore have succumbed, with native broadleaf trees suffering ‘very high mortality’ rates of around 95%, with warm weather believed to be a key factor.

The forest is being created at the former sporting estate of Kinrara, purchased by north-east brewing firm BrewDog in 2020 in a deal reported to be worth £8.8 million and has been a key marketing theme for the controversial brand.

At the time, BrewDog chief executive, James Watt said the Lost Forest would be the single largest native woodland establishment and peatland restoration project ever in the UK, capable of pulling one million tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The firm also claimed to be carbon negative, with the Lost Forest playing a key role in their boast.

The planting scheme, which BrewDog said had reached 500,000 trees last year attracted Scottish Government funding, with an initial payment of £690,000.

In a statement published this week, Mr Watt said 15.3 billion trees are cut down each year for agriculture, timber and construction.

Turning to the Lost Forest he said the mortality was ‘disappointing’ and pointed to ‘last summer’s extreme conditions’ for the failure, adding that 50,000 of the dead saplings have been replaced.

The grant contract, obtained under freedom of information legislation by campaigner Nick Kempe and seen by The Scottish Farmer demands an undertaking of 20 years for the woodland creation which contains a range of species.

The firm proposed a planting method of ‘inverted mounding’ to allow for flexibility in tree placement, however Mr Kempe argued this could have contributed to the mortality rate, with mounds quickly drying in the warm weather.

American investigative journalist and filmmaker Tom Opre whose film on land use in Scotland, The Last Keeper premieres in Edinburgh this month said the Scottish Government had ‘subsidised the destruction of a naturally evolved habitat’ following his own investigation and added ‘it is not creating the effect intended and knowing the government is spending millions of pounds of taxpayers money to pay for all of this to occur is a travesty.’

Scottish Forestry said public funds were on the project were protected.

A spokesperson said: “We need to plant more trees to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as to provide the many other economic and social benefits associated with forestry.

“Every woodland creation scheme that we award grant funding to is fully and rigorously assessed against the UK Forestry Standard and environmental regulations. We work towards the simple principle of the right tree in the right place.

“As regulator for forestry in Scotland, we have carried out an inspection last year to the Lost Forest project on the Kinrara Estate. Our inspectors found pockets of high mortality of trees that were planted and we believe the most likely cause of this was the very dry conditions last Spring when the trees were put in the ground.

“The public funds allocated to the woodland creation project are fully protected. We will expect the applicant (Lost Forest) to make good through replacement planting at their own cost to ensure that the agreed amount of woodland creation, and at the correct tree density, takes place. If we found that this was not the case then we can reclaim the grant.

“Scottish Forestry will continue to monitor the site to ensure that the forestry grant conditions are met.”