Here in Scotland we have been continuing with our interviews including interviews with Forestry Commission and Scottish Woodlands to identify barriers to business growth and ways forward for business development in the forestry sector.  Additionally we have been collating information on forest service providers all over Scotland and will soon be sending out a national survey to fill in the gaps regarding economics.  On 23rd May we will be hosting our first FOBIA Scottish National Steering Group meeting with our associate partners and representatives from the industry that will provide insights and valuable guidance for future project activities. Read below thoughts about Scottish Forestry from Euan Bowditch, IC-UHI.

Land prioritised for deer grazing and feeding stations – forest is seen as a hindrance to such activities (Photo: Euan Bowditch)

The Scottish forestry industry is experiencing a surge in popularity or rather recognition, creating a window of opportunity to capitalise from this favourable situation. However, forestry needs more than a temporary window to affect change.

The timescales, planning and development needed to take advantage of this arboreal zeitgeist are not compatible with political shifts and impatience for rapid economic return.  This upward trajectory and popularity may be short lived, derailed by another high-profile disease impacting the landscape or public health (Chalara, Oak processionary moth, Phytophthora etc.), the economy is always vulnerable to cheaper timber from overseas and market shifts that undermine the domestic production.

Land is also under competition from farmers, both arable and livestock and a new type of farming, energy farming, which has rapidly become one of Scotland’s most valuable resources. Not only occupying land but offering a new sector of employment for workers in the Highlands, which has directly impacted the forestry services providers business landscape by luring potential forest workers to another sector with stability of income.

Example of grouse moors in the Scottish Highlands, strips are burnt land for heather regeneration and on the hilltop are wind turbines (Photo: Euan Bowditch)

Land for new forests is at a premium squeezed by competing land uses such as grazing for livestock and deer, as well as large areas given over to Grouse moors that restrict forestry to marginal areas where the infrastructure and ground is not favourable. There is concern that timber supply will be severely reduced in 30-40 years’ time due to the poor performance of planting targets for new woodland creation schemes. This factor has huge implications for the forestry service providers and may affect future and current businesses – one factor that also paints a gloomy picture for productive forestry is that a lot of schemes in the past few decades favoured mixed species woodland for amenity, meaning that no thinnings or management will have taken place creating trees with little potential for markets.

Undermanagement has been a continuous problem for forests in Scotland with many plantations of Sitka spruce (Picea stitchensis) and Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) from previous planting schemes going unmanaged for decades producing unappealing forests for both the eye and the pocket. Subsequently giving rise to the opinion that forestry is not only ugly but of little benefit to the land or landowner.

Stand of Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) undermanaged and windblown, now of little economic benefit, subsequently difficult to clear, restock and restructure (Photo: Euan Bowditch)

Inevitably the impacts of these forests existing in the landscape for living memory is then seen as the norm, therefore bringing a case forward to farmers and other landowners to promote the benefits of forestry becomes a very hard sell.  Not only are you fighting living evidence, professional mistrust but a deeply engrained cultural resonance that views forests as a land use that gives very little back in either the short or long-term.

Agroforestry and farm forestry are approaches that have been heavily pushed for the last two decades and the uptake in Scotland has been significant in comparison with the rest of the UK but an attitude of segregation and exceptional circumstances prevails rather than the gradual acceptance of a complimentary mindset. This is one of the fundamental issues that we grapple with in Scotland, which is very much connected to the way in which education and training incorporates what is seen as competing land uses.

What does this mean for the forestry service provider? Perhaps a cautionary note on future diversification that just looking within a single sector is short-sighted, are there multiple cross-over sector services or niche markets to anticipate – what innovation can be offered to win the trust and respect of customers while sustaining and growing the business. If we want businesses to prospect on the future and take risk to expand and develop their business to meet the future supply and demand, then we need to start at the beginning and address the fundamentals knowledge, perception and finding room to plant a tree.

The relationship between sheep and trees can be mutually beneficial – production and cultural heritage entwinned?

Is there a role for forestry service providers to stimulate the sector and rural economy at large? Planting small seeds during small areas of business development can have large, unforeseen impacts.


Text: Euan Bowditch, IC-UHI