Rewilding Scotland: can we see the wood for the trees?

Forests covered great swaths of the country, brimming with native species including Scots pine, aspen, birch, oak, rowan, holly, willow and alder.

Wild lynx, wolves, bears, aurochs, elk and beavers roamed, while the air thronged with insects and birdlife and rivers and lochs were jumping with fish.

But that was a few thousand years ago. Today less than a fifth of Scottish land is covered with trees and wildlife is vanishing at an alarming rate, with more than one in ten species at risk of extinction.

A variety of woodland types occur naturally across Scotland, with local geology, topography, soils and climate determining which trees thrive in what places.

Whether it’s the Atlantic rainforests of the west coast or montane scrub on the highest hillsides, woodlands provide habitats for a massive array of other life - from wee beasties, fungi and lichens you can barely see to iconic animals such as pine martens, red squirrels, wildcats and birds of prey.

Trees are also one of the most effective weapons in the battle against climate change due to their ability to suck up and store carbon, preventing its release into the atmosphere to drive further warming. Research suggests forests across the world absorb almost 40 per cent of the 38 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide created by mankind each year.

Trees also hold great value once they have been cut down - timber products are used to make everything from construction materials and musical instruments to medicines, clothes, engine oils and even flexible LCD screens.

Growing our own timber in a sustainable way also cuts impacts on the environment, reducing emissions generated through transportation and helping reduce deforestation in other countries.

Today around 18.5 per cent of Scotland is covered in trees. The figure’s not great compared to the European average of 43 per cent, but it’s a massive increase from 100 years ago, when coverage was more like five per cent.

Scotland has set out national targets to increase this to 21 per cent by 2032, with a current planting target of 15 thousand hectares each year but rising to 18 thousand hectares annually from 2024.

In recent years four out of five of all new trees in the UK were planted in Scotland - including state-owned forestry and private sector operations. But there is still a way to go, and plenty of challenges ahead.

Trees for Life (TfL), a conservation charity based near Loch ness in the Highlands, champions rewilding. It is working to restore Scotland’s native Caledonian forests, which have been reduced to a few scattered remnants covering around one per cent of their original extent.

The team believes rewilding the landscape can help tackle “overlapping nature, climate and health crises” by bringing back wildlife, benefiting health and well-being and creating sustainable jobs in rural areas.

Around a third of all Scottish woodlands are part of the national forest estate, managed by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS). These include native woodlands at iconic sites such as Glen Affric as well as newly planted commercial forests, where trees are harvested for timber.

The organisation plants around 25 million trees each year and fells just over a third of that number.

Jo Ellis, head of planning and environment for FLS, believes the importance of conifer plantations is vastly underestimated. “There is a lot more to commercial forestry and its huge potential than meets the eye, and many people would be surprised to learn just how vital, versatile and valuable Scotland’s conifer forests are,” she said.

We have a slightly uneasy relationship with commercial forestry in Scotland due to lessons learned from the sort of large-scale plantations that became commonplace in the 1970s - massive dark-green stands of Christmas trees stretching across the countryside as far as the eye could see.

These mono-culture blocks of densely packed non-native conifers were put up in places where it seemed like not much else was going on, but their detrimental effect on local environments has been recognised.

Peatlands became damaged through drying out, wildlife disappeared due to lack of habitat and soils were depleted.

A mixture of native species planted in a way that mimics nature is widely considered to be the best way to restore woodland cover and provide maximum benefits for the environment.

This has resulted in the perception: broadleaves good, conifers bad. However, it’s certainly not that simple.

All trees, evergreen or deciduous, are good for soaking up carbon emissions. Studies show conifers such as Douglas fir and Sitka spruce are more efficient at rapid carbon sequestration than their broad-leaved counterparts.

Ellis said: “Native broadleaves, which are slow-growing, will do this over a long period of time but faster-growing species like Sitka spruce - which can grow as much as 1.5m in height a year in the right conditions - are better for more immediate carbon storage.”.

And if planted correctly, commercial conifer forests are far from ecological deserts, hosting a far greater abundance of other wildlife than was previously thought.

Studies have identified as many as 2,000 species - some rare and threatened - making their homes in plantations.

“For many people the term ‘biodiversity’ conjures up images of animals such as deer, eagles, wildcats or otters but these perennial public favourites are only the tip of the iceberg – and often the most high-profile - part of Scotland’s biodiversity,” Ellis added

“Get beyond that and you find that Scotland’s conifer forests are an absolute heaven for thousands of species - beetles, hoverflies, bryophytes and fungi and a whole host of other less ‘cuddly species that play a crucial part in keeping habitats healthy.

Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor, the trade body for 1,500 forestry and wood-using businesses across the UK. He believes today’s commercial conifer plantations unfairly get a bad rap due to past history and insists there is no need for a trade-off - forests can provide both homes for wildlife and the timber that builds homes for people.

“Planting trees soaks up carbon, making products from wood stores carbon - and using more wood in construction substitutes carbon-heavy materials like steel and concrete,” he said.

“According to the Scottish Government’s own advisers on forestry, newly planted modern productive forests reduce carbon in the atmosphere more than native woodland.

Management and planning of commercial forest has come a long way in the past 50 years.

FLS plans to plant five trees for every person in Scotland this year. That means digging in around 22 million trees - with a 40/60 conifer/broadleaf split.

Every FLS forest – big or small, simple or complex – has a land management plan that details what will happen, where and when, showing long-term development of the forest.

These plans, drawn up before a single tree is felled or planted, aim to balance the economic benefits of jobs and timber production with the social and environmental benefits of being pleasant, welcoming places that are essential for climate change mitigation and enjoyment for people.

Scotland is the only part of the UK to have set targets for wood use in construction - with the aim of increasing this from 2.2 million cubic metres in 2018 to three million by 2032.

With global demand for wood predicted to triple by 2060, all parts of the UK need to produce more wood to avoid putting pressure on forests overseas - the UK currently imports around 80 per cent of the wood it uses, the world's second largest net importer after China.

In Scotland we produce only around a quarter of the wood we need, so growing more would have both environmental and financial gains.

Scotland is home to the oldest tree in the UK, the Fortingall Yew, which grows in a churchyard near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. The ancient conifer is thought to be around 5,000 years old, perhaps older, and has survived all sorts of adversities and historical happenings. That tenacious tree surely stands as a great symbol of endurance and hope as we battle the current crises facing our world.

Tree-hugger is no longer a pejorative term. It’s probably a compliment. And if you go down to the woods, you could do worse than putting your arms around a spruce.