Could agriculture cope with the death of 36 million trees? -Brian Henderson

Like one of those earworm songs you hear on the radio that you can’t get rid of for days, this question was recently popped into my head by an industry figurehead who highlighted the current rate of afforestation on this side of the border, which accounts for over 80% of all new planting in the UK.

And, what’s more, not only is the Scottish Government proud of its record on this front – but, with the current annual planting target of 12,000 hectares being more than achieved, it is set to increase that to 18,000 hectares by by 2024/25 – equivalent to a planting rate of around 36 million trees per year.

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Currently, almost 20% of Scottish land is already covered in trees. A similar area is covered in peat bogs – and while huge efforts are underway to restore degraded areas, new guidelines recently introduced will also prevent forestry from encroaching on peat soils.

Nearly 20% of the country’s land is already under trees

With much of the harshest land in the country unsuitable for planting or growing trees, this means that much future forestry expansion is likely to take place, therefore, on the in-between type of terrain – the type of permanent grassland that has traditionally provided the backbone for much of Scotland’s famous livestock industries, acting as the engine of the country’s beef and lamb production .

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Any major reduction in the level of animal production in these central regions would have quite dramatic consequences for the whole industry in Scotland, adding significantly to the already considerable critical mass challenge which is brought about by the current difficult economic climate.

About a year ago, allegations that senior civil servants working for the Scottish Government saw a substantial reduction in cattle numbers as a quick and easy way to achieve the ambitious – some might say too much – targets that have been set by the current administration for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The claims were strongly denied at the official level – but rumors circulated that the idea was still being entertained by some officials.

It would therefore be too wild a speculation to think that by sitting on their hands – and letting the wider agricultural and rural policy and strategy drift – the ever-increasing area planted with trees would quietly but ruthlessly do the work for them without triggering the political inconvenience of having to impose such an unpleasant choice on the industry?

And, rather than suffer death by a thousand cuts – could agriculture cope with death by 36 million trees?

Seen from another angle, however, the situation calls into question the current administration’s desire to see an independent Scotland play the role it claims it wants the country to have as a leader on the world stage as a sustainable nation. and self-sufficient. that not only champions local food but wants food and beverage exports to continue to grow.

And although much of the land in question has little potential to grow crops, the abundance of rain allows Scotland to excel at converting grass into animal protein through a system that is among the most effective. and sustainable in the world.

But it is undeniable that prices for land with planting potential are already well above what any farmer could afford to pay and that the rush into forestry continues – due to high timber prices and the potential return on carbon credits – is unlikely to see the light of day. this trend reversed soon.

The Scottish Land Commission’s recent report found that the rise in prices was due to the growing role of non-farm investors who were influenced by the long-term investment potential and environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations of companies .

And in 2021, almost half of all estates purchased in Scotland have been purchased by corporate bodies, investment funds or charitable trusts – driven by the potential for reforestation, carbon offsets and natural capital.

But if the current free-for-all sees traditional farming in these areas wither and die, Scotland will face not only massive rural depopulation, but also a blow to any hope of food security.

It’s time to put down the violin.

About Cassondra Durden

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