‘Jock, when you have naething else to do ye may aye be sticking in a tree. It will be growing Jock when ye’re sleeping’ HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN

Prior to 2019, 350,000 saplings had been planted to compensate for the loss of ancient woodland caused by the construction of the controversial HS2 railway. 80% quickly died due to lack of aftercare. HS2 Ltd said that replacing the trees was more cost-effective than watering them.

A total of seven million new trees, a mix of oak, hazel, dogwood and holly, are scheduled to be planted. With similar maintenance to the first lot the chances of tiny seedlings becoming trees are slim.

While not a tree hugger in the accepted meaning of the phrase, I have planted several woods over my lifetime for various reasons and benefited greatly from them. At Rawburn, the high and exposed farm in the Lammermuirs where I was brought up, there were 34 woods. On the hill land they were mostly pine and spruce, and would average five acres in size.

Due to their small size and inaccessibility, their timber value was nil, but they had huge value as shelter. Sheep had access to all sides of them and they saved countless lives in heavy snow.

Many have since been cut down and not replanted as there are now no sheep on the ground in winter. The woods on the inbye fields, although beneficial to livestock in bad weather, were larger and mainly planted to improve the pheasant shoot.

On Kettleshiel, a neighbouring farm to Rawburn which I managed, several of the hill woods had been felled decades ago and not replanted. Round the edges of these old plantations a few Scots Pine had been left standing. They had been planted about the time of the Napoleonic wars.

When we cut them down before we replanted the woods, we got £15 apiece for them which didn’t seem much after 200 years in the ground.

Most of the woods we planted on Rawburn and Kettleshiel had originally been planted in Queen Victoria’s reign, when hill farming was more prosperous than farming lower down. They had been replanted at least once since then. On Bothwell, also in the Lammermuirs, where my father lived, we planted a new wood and, unlike the woods which we had replanted, had to get approval. The man, either from the Department of Agriculture or the Region planners, I forget which, insisted that, for visual reasons, the fences were to be curved.

We pointed out that we would never be able to keep curved fences tight which he reluctantly conceded. Ignorant of the tough upland climate, he made us plant hardwoods round the outside of the wood. During the first heavy snow, deer and hares walked on the drifts over the fence and not a single hardwood survived.

On Crichness, which marched with Bothwell, all the hill ground was blanket planted with conifers. Very controversially the owner didn’t bother applying for a grant, which up to then had been regarded as essential but required approval. More recently, when the trees were well short of maturity, they were felled and replaced by windmills as they now paid better than the trees.

When we came to Upper Huntlywood in 2016, we tidied up the woods which had been planted about 20 years before then left badly neglected. Timber prices were high at the time and sales covered felling and replanting, which is a condition of getting a felling licence. In 2021, Storm Arwen struck.

Because of its widespread devastation, timber was plentiful and prices were much lower. Sales covered the clearance of the fallen trees and only a quarter of the costly replanting and protecting the hardwoods. We were left with a bill of £9887 (VAT excluded) to pay for the balance.

In 2017, I wrote in my Farmer’s View article of planting a small area of Sessile oaks which in time would provide top-value timber. The seedlings were about nine inches high and were tubed to prevent vermin damage. Since then, the stakes which hold the tubes upright have all rotted at ground level. I have replaced every one. Some of the seedlings have appeared out of the tubes and should now be strong enough to stand unsupported. Many of the others are still less than a foot tall. Hopefully they will be self-supporting by the time the new stakes rot. It is certain that had I not restaked them, which is a time-consuming process, they would have gone the way of those on the HS2 line.

For completely new, small hardwood plantations, grants cover about 60% of planting costs and also maintenance costs for the first five years. The latter amounts to between £150/ha and £300/ha, depending on the variety of trees. This gives a total between £2800 and £3600 per hectare with the farmer paying the same. There are no grants for replanting an existing wood. Maintenance after five years remains expensive, time-consuming and is paid entirely by the farmer.

In many, probably most, cases as previously at Upper Huntlywood, this isn’t done, and the eventual timber is low value. Whether the woodland has been well maintained and has a high value at harvest, or neglected and is little more than scrub, a blandishment is that timber sales will be tax free. My own experience is that the cost of mandatory replanting more than offsets any tax saved. The benefits to the farmer are in shelter, sport, or amenity. Maybe, like me you just like trees.

Unlike in Jock’s time it will never be a money-spinner. If it is properly looked after, ‘sticking in a tree’ is a good deal for the government in meeting its carbon reduction target and reducing global warming. It is asking farmers to forgo profit on part of their own farm and manage the land for the public good.

The taxpayer must pay them properly for their work.