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Natural capital update: The Challenges of Woodland Creation in the Current Climate

By Heather Coyle

The Climate Change Action Plan sets ambitious tree planting targets for Scotland – rising from 12,000 hectares a year to 18,000 hectares a year by 2024/25. The industry has responded, meeting targets in 2020/21 and looking set to meet targets for 21/22. 

However, climate change has risen in public opinion and what was once considered an affordable, low-impact operation which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – is now more opaque. Amid opinions on deer fencing, re-wilding, “green lairds”, impacts on peat hydrology, marginality and the impact on community livelihoods, woodland creation has become more challenging than ever.

In June 2021, Forestry Commission, Forest Research and Natural England published new guidance relating to the protection of peatland and the establishment of new woodland. Under this new guidance – applicable only in England – deep peat is now classified as any peat over 30cm: the rationale being that the previous 50cm threshold (still applicable in Scotland) precluded a large part of the carbon store and made it more difficult to restore peatlands effectively. How are we to interpret this in Scotland? Whilst this is not policy, there is growing scrutiny of planting on shallow peats and its effects on the wider hydrology. The vast majority of schemes in the Highlands use shallow peats – a move away from this would preclude much planting ground.

Over the last year this question of marginality has created a challenge in accessing funding through the Forestry Grant Scheme (FGS). With mosaics of shallow and deep peats being classed as too marginal, the thinking being that while shallow peats will support tree growth, they will not grow at rates acceptable under the grant scheme.

Alternative funding sources are available. NatureScot runs a number of competitive funds while Scottish and Southern Electricity (SSE) is seeking land for new planting through their compensatory planting scheme.

However, the over-arching question still remainsshould we be planting these marginal areas? Is it good practice? There are a number of conflicting studies at present: some installing the virtues of shallow peats in carbon sequestration versus the relative ineffectiveness of low yield class tree species, while others fully contradict this, stating that afforesting these areas increases carbon sequestration in the long term. There is also the risk of only prioritising carbon capture, where we should be assessing all elements of natural capital such as an increase in biodiversity- allowing vegetation to recover through reduction of grazing and trampling, increasing soil quality, increasing micro-organisms, invertebrates and-in turn- bird populations, stabilising the hill side, creating new habitats, keeping water temperatures down to increase fish populations- providing a sustainable resource of timber, providing employment opportunities and providing woodlands for recreation and human health.

As ever, these factors should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Foresters will continue to follow best practice: seeking advice from stakeholders, consultees, regulators and communities. At the heart of it, we are all environmentalists – seeking to do the right thing for the environment.

We encourage land owners to consider their projects well in advance.

A longer version of this appears in Forestry Matters

* Natural Capital: Galbraith’s expert advisers guide our clients in realising value in all land uses – by assessing and measuring natural assets, furthering opportunities in biodiversity net gain, and ensuring stakeholders are rewarded fully for their investment in and contribution to delivering ecosystem services and net-zero outcomes.