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Natural capital update: Timber sea route cuts emissions and protects Highlands

 Heather Coyle


The timber industry in Scotland brings big benefits to the economy and local communities, producing approximately 9m tonnes and generating some £1bn in income a year.


Transporting harvested timber brings problems, however. Restrictions apply to heavy haulage on the road networks in many coastal areas of Scotland to protect fragile environments. In the Northwest Highlands many of the roads are built over peat and were never designed for 44-tonne traffic.


Tourism adds to traffic and the success of the scenic NC500 has an impact.  Many of the north-western woodlands we manage are distant from markets, up to 120 miles being the norm. Despite increased market values of both chipwood and sawlog material, road haulage impacts on profit margins.


The industry has recognised the need for sustainable transport planning and attention has turned to the possibilities offered to the sea, an obvious choice in the west of Scotland with its proximity to the Irish Sea and its lochs and waterways. 


In 2020 we were harvesting a mature timber crop near Kinlochbervie harbour. Located on the 58th latitude – about as far north and west as you can get, the village is more used to fishing boats than timber vessels but fits the ‘modal shift strategy’ well.


Once the decision to use sea transport was made, the firm John Scott Transport (JST) liaised with the harbourmaster, crew and ourselves and coordinated logistics with Great Glen Shipping. Neil Stoddart of JST organised safe loading and documentation.


Cowan Ltd transported spruce and larch saw log from the woodlands to the harbour so the boat could leave before high tide. Its on-board crane made short work of loading.


The final step was clearing the harbour of brash and bark, delivered to a local gardener for use as mulch.


We plan a further boatload of 1,000 tonnes of spruce log and to switch to more regular sea shipping to reduce road miles by some 7,000 miles a year. This really opens up our clients’ ability to deliver timber to more specialist new markets.


The impact on air quality, noise, visual amenity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions is a big further benefit.


• Natural Capital: The expert advisers at Galbraith 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.