15 Jun 2023

Blog: New woodland stats – a more in-depth look

New woodland stats – a more in-depth look

Every June the new woodland planting statistics get published by Forestry Research. The spotlight always closes in on the new woodland planting section to see whether Scotland has managed to hit its national targets.

Behind the stats is a pretty complex story with so many external factors affecting new planting figures.

In this “explainer” blog we speak to Brendan Callaghan, Scottish Forestry’s Head of Operational Delivery to delve into the stats a bit more.

Brendan’s team manages the Forestry Grant Scheme and he oversees the five Conservancy offices dotted across Scotland – all of which work with landowners, agents and forestry companies to agree and fund new woodland creation projects. His teams also support a wide range of forest industries and landowners with grants to help businesses expand. 

Akre Brendan
(Brendan Callaghan, 2nd left advises Scottish Government Ministers and forest industries on woodland creation.)

How has the previous year been for woodland creation in Scotland?
Well, before we look at the stats I think we need to highlight all the hard work by so many individuals, organisations, agents, woodland officers, and related businesses, who have pulled out the stops to contribute towards woodland creation in the past year. Everyone zooms straight into the figures but what rarely gets any attention is the effort put in.

From a Scottish Forestry perspective, our grants team and the woodland officers across Scotland have worked tirelessly and under constant pressure so I’d personally like to thank them for everything they have achieved.

What are the new stats showing?
The figures show that in the year 22/23 Scotland has created 8,190 ha of new woodland out of a target of 15,000 ha. This is quite a dip as previously we have been hitting around the 10,000 to 11,000 mark quite consistently.

In every year we tend to expect around a 10% slippage in what Scottish Forestry approves and what actually gets planted by landowners. This year it was around 25% which is certainly higher than normal.

England planted 3,130 ha, Wales 1,190 ha and Northern Ireland 450 ha. This means Scotland is creating over 60% of all new woodlands in the UK.

AP Alasdair Sangster

So how much did Scottish Forestry approve towards the national target?
We approved 11,000 ha worth of forestry applications for 22/23 but as I had said before, around 25% of these projects were either delayed or not taken forward by landowners.

What about native woodland planting?
These figures have been affected too by the slippage – this is disappointing. Scotland didn’t meet the 4,000 ha minimum this year. We achieved 74% of the target and achieved 2,945 ha.

Growing our native woodland resource is a priority for improving our environment so we need to change this around quickly. There are good projects in the pipeline and just recently we awarded the Woodland Trust £1 million funding to a super native woodland project at Ben Shieldaig.

We’re also starting to approve more woodland being created through natural regeneration, but compared to planting this takes a few years before the trees are growing and can be included in the stats.

What is the main cause for the lack of new woodland area?
We’ve had discussions over the planting levels with Confor and there is a general agreement that the key cause appears to be around skills in both the public and private sector and the actual available capacity to get planting.

This is not something specific to forestry as nearly every sector is facing the same issue but it has hit our industry and this is reflecting in not meeting the targets and in delivery of some other activities such as timber harvesting programmes. In addition, some schemes didn’t go ahead due to transfers of ownership succession issues around private estates and there’s not much we can do about that.

Smaller schemes were also hit by inflation too so even though grants can cover up to 80% of costs, smaller landowners such as crofters or farmers couldn’t afford the extra expense so decided to postpone.

Scotland’s planting figures have remained static and now have dipped, how are we going to turn it around?
It’s not something Scottish Forestry or the Scottish Government can do alone – woodland creation is very much a collective effort with the forestry sector, charities, farmers, crofters and community organisations across Scotland.

We can provide the right support, advice and grant incentives to encourage planting but at the end of the day it is the landowners who get the trees in the ground. And to count towards the yearly target the landowner must plant the trees and claim the grant by March 31st.

The Forestry Summit planned for this year will bring together a range of sectors involved in woodland creation so that we can air issues, have a frank and open discussion, and collectively pull together an action plan to move forward and get the planting figures back up again.

Scottish Forestry needs to increase the rate at which we’re approving woodland creation applications and we have to do some work with the industry to stop large slippages of projects which ultimately should count towards the targets.

There has been announcement of new measures to boost woodland creation – what can you say about these?
The Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon has announced a raft of new measures to get planting levels back up there including a £1 million investment to train Scottish Forestry front line staff – this will greatly speed up the applications process.

We are also going to make woodland creation the main priority and focus for all our operations within the organisation. In practice this will mean that Scottish Forestry will review its operations to simply ensure a tighter focus around woodland creation. It might mean resources are prioritised to make sure we have the capacity in the right places to support woodland creation. We are also planning to address the inflationary pressures that have impacted on smaller scale schemes.

Heather Fraser 30

Does Scottish Forestry have enough staff to manage the demand for woodland creation?
Yes I am confident we have the right levels in place – over the last three years we have increased our staffing numbers by 20%. However, new staff have to develop skills and experience and that takes time, especially in handling complex woodland creation applications. We have a huge skills training planned to help them and this should really make a difference.

There is also a need for private sector training too. If we get well developed and higher quality woodland applications coming in then it saves time for everyone and can speed up the process. As I have said before, it is a joint effort with the public and private forest sectors.

How do you see the future working out in meeting targets?
We have ambitious targets but if you don’t set the bar high you don’t have that extra impetus to go for it. 

I would say the future looks much better. There continues to be very strong demand for woodland creation in Scotland, with over 17,000 hectares already approved for planting over the next three years. A further 29,000 hectares of Forestry Grant Scheme applications and projects at planning stage are currently being worked on by applicants and Scottish Forestry.

When the figures come out, it tends to start a debate on social media about how many conifers there are as opposed to broadleaves. Any view on that?
To be honest this one is as old as the hills! In many cases we have actually moved on from this but some stakeholders are genuinely concerned about the types of forests being created and entrenched views are sometimes difficult to shift.

It has never been particularly helpful to pitch one type of tree against another. It’s very simple really, if you want to tackle climate change and nature loss you need a balance of broadleaves and productive conifers. I think that is the overriding message and of course “the right tree in the right place.” That’s what Scottish Forestry strives to achieve.

I’m well aware that in some cases woodland creation is a very personal and individual issue so it can very much depend on what side of the fence you sit as to whether you think we get are getting it right.

Finest Woods Awards

You are sounding quite optimistic despite the dip this year?
Yes, I am and I do think we will get there but forestry isn’t an industry that you change everything in a matter of a few months. There’s always external factors affecting the industry, just like every other industry and Scottish Forestry can’t wave a magic wand on some of these issues.

There’s heaps of positive action going on right now, plenty planting interest in the pipeline and masses of enthusiasm and commitment from the Scottish Government. It’s going to take collective action to bring it together and Scottish Forestry is certainly right in there and raring to go.