Forestry and flooding were the dominant themes at the recent rural portfolio question time at the Scottish Parliament.

Aberdeenshire Tory MSP Alexander Burnett queried when the rural affairs secretary last met with Forestry and Land Scotland, adding figures obtained via FOI show that last year more than a million trees on public land were felled to make way for wind farms.

He added reports suggest forest roads owned by the Scottish Government are being improved to a higher than necessary standard with some concerned this is being done ahead of more windfarm applications.

Respond for the Scottish Government, Jim Fairlie said he was unaware of the issue and the cabinet secretary would respond in writing.

Labour MSP Richard Leonard asked if the forestry grant scheme is fit for purpose.

Mr Fairlie outlined that since 2015, 85,000ha of new woodland have been supported, including 40,000ha of native woodland and 8000ha through natural regeneration. He added the forestry grant scheme also contributes to a broad range of other priorities, including public access to woodland, rainforest restoration, priority species conservation and rural development.

Tory Craig Hoy then asked what Forestry and Land Scotland is doing to deliver economic benefit from the land it manages, while fellow Tory Graham Simpson asked about wild bee welfare.

Mr Fairlie said the Scottish Government is committed to halting and reversing the declines in wild bee populations through the pollinator strategy which runs until 2027.

Former minister Fergus Ewing asked what discussions have taken place regarding ‘an immediate review of the Water Environment Regulations 2011, in order to allow proactive watercourse management to assist farmers, crofters and land managers to protect agricultural land from flooding risks themselves.

The minister said ‘while watercourse management can play a role, it is not always effective in reducing water levels, and it can have an impact on downstream populations.’

Mr Ewing then cited a farmer who told him that ‘Farmers and landowners must be allowed to clear riverbanks and in some cases dredge rivers. SEPA stops them at every turn.’

He added: “I have spoken to three other farmers who have identified an overly complex prescriptive system, and they say that they are rarely allowed to remove silt and only use bank protection such as gabion baskets for insufficient lengths of time to avoid resultant flooding.

“They say that damage is being done to public roads, for example the B740. In some cases, farmers are actually threatened by SEPA with withdrawal of their single farm payments, for infraction, so that many farmers are afraid to have sheep on their farm. Is not the system a complete failure?”

Mr Fairlie responded he does not believe the system is a complete failure, but said: “There is a complete dichotomy between what farmers are asking SEPA to do and what SEPA believes should be done. SEPA does not ban dredging.

“Land managers can undertake certain works without the need for SEPA authorisation, including clearing subsurface field drains and man-made ditches. Litter debris and in-stream vegetation can also be removed without SEPA authorisation. Regulatory controls are proportionate to the risk, and sediment removal in agricultural ditches and straightened rivers can be carried out under authorisation, which is subject to good practice.”