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Scotland - 'It’s Not The Tree, It’s The How'

Written by: Kirsty Tait, NFFN Sustainable Lead for Northern Ireland

Land – we don’t have a huge amount of it in Scotland. We have no vast wildernesses, deserts, or prairies. However, having so little land means we can really understand it. The groundbreaking work and maps of the James Hutton Institute give us the insight we need as crucial and difficult decisions about this finite resource are needing to be made.

Clarity on the direction forward is emerging with a very welcome open commitment to a participative, citizen-led approach to consultation on agricultural transition and local food. But there are two targets that will push us all to think creatively and compromise:

  • 30% of Scotland’s and seas to be protected (with 10% highly protected by 2030)
  • 18,000 Ha of woodland (of that 4000Ha native) created per annum by 2024/25

Here at the NFFN, a simple guiding principle often used is ‘it is not the cow, it’s the how.’  Meaning don’t blame the cows – we still need them. It’s the method of farming that contributes to climate change, rather than the farming itself.

With woodland creation, the guiding principle is ‘the right tree in the right place.’ This means being very deliberate in planning where and how woodlands are created and ensuring multiple benefits are delivered.  We could bring in a similar guiding principle to support that -‘it’s not the tree, it’s the how.’ Right tree – yes. Right place – yes. But let’s also examine how woodland creation is delivered. It is not quite as catchy as the “cow”, but bear with me.

At NFFN, we are fully supportive of the 18,000ha target of woodland creation a year. It’s the kind of ambitious target which we need in these code-red days of our climate emergency. However, we have a strong view that this target should include a higher proportion than the current 4000ha target for native woodland creation and should explicitly include targets for agroforestry.

So why should this balance matter and why include agroforestry?

Going back to ‘it’s not the tree it’s the how.’  Commercial forestry in the way it currently operates gives us precious timber, local jobs and access to green space and recreation opportunities. However, the way the investment model works, much of the wealth created is not currently retained in the areas it impacts. Similar to conventional farming, not enough livelihood opportunities are currently being created. The land-use change decisions also do not feel very participative with local communities feeling this is being done to them rather than with them. In the long- term this does not feel great for rural communities. We don’t fully understand yet what the impacts will be. But with a higher proportion of land-use change from farming to forestry, and much of that commercial forestry as opposed to native woodlands being planted in the South of Scotland, we will soon be able to assess.

Will it provide the livelihood opportunities we so desperately need to halt our growing rural depopulation? Will it provide what Magnus Davidson eloquently asks in the SEDA conversations around ‘A New Vision for Land Use in Scotland:

‘I want to see people of the landscape, not just in the landscape.’

This then brings us to our guiding principle of nature- friendly. What does that look like in the world of woodland creation? If planning was purely guided by what nature needs, what percentage of woodlands commercial/ native/ non-native would halt our biodiversity crisis? Does focusing alone on woodland creation whether native or non-native give the kind of landscape mosaic of natural habitats nature needs? Is the current UKFS guidance for managing conifers for a 75% limit for a forest area to be planted with a single species and 10% left unplanted for new woodlands enough?

RSPB Scotland believes that we will need to go beyond the UKFS minimum provisions for biodiversity to meet both climate and biodiversity goals. A target they set out, which is shared by members of the Link Food and Farming group, is that 50% of new planting should be of native tree species, which could include productive species. They also believe there is much more scope to develop and adopt more wildlife-friendly models of productive forestry compared to current standards, in the same way farmers are being pressed to produce food in more wildlife-friendly ways (Woodland Expansion in Scotland: RSPB Scotland Policy Briefing.)

So what if the 18,000ha target was reset to include 9000Ha of native (inc productive) woodlands? Or, as set out in the ‘Farming for 1.5’ report included a target of 6000ha of agroforestry to be created a year?

It is argued that this will not deliver the amount of timber we need (the UK currently imports 81% of its wood products which in itself is not sustainable and could be contributing to habitat destruction elsewhere.) But looking at this holistically, could this changed target still meet our timber needs, but, as equally important, what else could it help us work towards? If given the right support and access to land and investment, I have no doubt that a growing sector of nature-friendly farmers and crofters could go a long way to meet this annual target, whilst still producing food and local wealth to be recirculated in their communities. This is the integration of woodlands and farming. This can be done through the creation of woodier landscapes, alongside and within farmland, with native trees that do not damage other habitats or soils and through silvopasture, silvoarable and agroforestry systems including the development of woodland crofts.

Alongside the creation of livelihoods, this approach would also provide the precious habitat fragments and protection required to enable our wildlife and soils to make their slow way back to recovery.

As the consultations on delivering our agriculture and food system transitions begin, we inevitably will have to compromise on our lines in the sand. However, that should not stop the ‘what if’ questions from having a place. Nothing should be off the table.

What we decide now will have impacts lasting long into the future. Many of our threatened species have already drawn their land in the sand and this needs to be listened to.

We are calling for everyone to #RethinkFarming to support the transition to nature and people-friendly practices and to help reach net-zero.  We are aware of the pioneering practice that some land managers are already undertaking in Scotland and we would be really keen to work with the forestry industry to develop more of this. Nothing is binary when it comes to land use.

However, everything does begin with an ambitious target and the current target of 4000ha of native woodland creation, and not explicitly including agroforestry, does not feel like the level of ambition we need.

If you would like to reach out to Kirsty to discuss NFFN Scotland’s upcoming campaigns, email her via