Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, the Trust's Chief Executive, Jonny Hughes, describes the multiple benefits to Scotland of increasing native woodland cover.
Number 38: Expand woodland and wood pasture cover to at least 30% of Scotland's land through widespread natural regeneration and planting of native Scottish trees.
Scotland's woodlands are finally on the road to recovery after centuries of loss, misuse and abuse.
As the former natural vegetation community over much of Scotland, woodlands and scrub support more wildlife than any other terrestrial habitat. This species richness is greatest in ancient semi-natural woodlands – the surviving descendants of our original natural forests. These now rare fragments of habitat are irreplaceable reservoirs from which nature can begin to spread back into restored and re-wilded landscapes. They are a surviving link to lost ecologies from which new, living landscapes will emerge in the coming century.
Scotland's woodlands are great places to see birds and mammals. I've had my best ever sightings of wildcat and pine marten in the oak-birch-hazel woodlands of the west coast, while the Caledonian pinewoods of the Cairngorms National Park are the perfect place to see other Scottish wildlife icons like capercaille, red squirrel and crested tit.
However, it is the diminutive mosses, liverworts and lichens, particularly those found within the Atlantic rainforests fringing the west coast, which are the most significant in international conservation terms. There are around 980 species of mosses and liverworts in Scotland1, the majority of which can be found in and around west coast woodlands and adjacent wetland and peatland habitats – a level of species richness that compares with forests in the tropics. It is much the same story for lichens with over 500 species recorded from the damp woodlands along the Atlantic coastline2. Learning to identify these species is the labour of a lifetime that few field ecologists will ever accomplish.
Woodlands with benefits
But woodlands are more than the sum of the species they support. They provide a host of social and economic benefits to Scotland's people, whether in the heart of our cities or the remotest of glens. Our woodlands are inspiring places for recreation and education which improve our physical and mental well-being. A recent study led by Richard Mitchell of the University of Glasgow found significantly lower rates of death and disease in people who lived near quality greenspace such as urban and urban-edge woodlands. Professor Mitchell and his colleagues also found that it is the poorer income groups who benefit most from being near to such green infrastructure3.
There's more. Well-designed woodlands enhance the beauty of cultural and historic landscapes. They help address climate change both by acting as a carbon store and through making ecosystems more resilient to severe weather events. Recent research has shown how trees and woodlands help regulate peak water flows and ameliorate flooding4. In cities, woodlands act as giant lungs, improving air quality through pollution absorption. Then there are the less tangible, less quantifiable but hugely important benefits such as the way local woodlands provide a focus for bringing people together, increasing social cohesion in communities. In many places, the role of woodlands in creating sense of place and a strong local cultural identity is profound.
Last, but by no means least, woodlands supply us with quality renewable resources in the form of timber, woodfuel and other wood products. Many people work in the forestry sector which contributes to rural development and job creation in often remote rural locations where jobs can be hard to come by.
So it is for good reason that the Scottish Wildlife Trust wants to see an increase in the quantity and quality of Scotland native woodlands and well-designed plantations.
Woodlands under threat
Despite the optimistic tenor of my opening sentence, Scotland's woodlands continue to face many threats. The native woodland survey of Scotland concluded that only 46% of the resource is in a satisfactory condition for biodiversity, mainly due to browsing and grazing of young trees by domestic livestock and ever growing numbers of wild deer. And whilst native woodland covers a paltry 4% of Scotland's land area, scrub makes up a staggeringly small 2% of this 4%. Woolly willow, for example, formerly occurred along the natural tree line on the richest soils but is now severely restricted by grazing to a handful of inaccessible mountain cliffs. Only four of its 13 remaining populations, mostly to be found in the Central Highlands, have more than 100 plants and the total for Scotland is estimated to be less than 1,800 plants5.
This is a function of the compartmentalised nature of Scotland's land use, be it in the uplands or lowlands. Fences are everywhere, leaving little room for transitional and successional habitats such as scrub in what is so often a series of large monocultures of rough grazing, grouse moor or forestry plantation. The sub-alpine scrub woodlands so widespread and buzzing with life in Scandinavia are now functionally extinct in Scotland. A Munro bagger will walk dozens of hills before encountering even one or two of the many species of mountain willows and the dwarf birch characteristic of these long-lost mountain woodlands.
In the lowlands there have also been losses. Hedgerows have been sacrificed for efficiency and those gloriously messy corners of farms – often containing wet woodland – have been gradually drained and converted to other land uses. Yet in the lowland agricultural landscapes, evidence suggests that the retention of trees and wood pastures can be of great benefit to farmers. A report by the Woodland Trust in 2013 found that trees on dairy farms can make a material difference to the serious risk of pollution from farm activities, especially nutrient run-off, as well as greatly enhancing local landscape character6. Wood pastures are often very rich in invertebrate biodiversity and have the added benefit of providing shade for grazing animals on hot days.
Taking action for woodlands
How can we reverse this trend of loss and degradation of our precious woodland resource? The Trust has identified the five most important areas for action as: protection; enhancement; expansion; people and woodlands; and woodland enterprises. We need the government to commit to absolute protection of the remaining ancient woodland resource and, as a minimum, there should be no net loss of native woodland. In addition, we urgently need to improve the ecological condition and cultural heritage value of the whole woodland resource through, for example, sharply reducing browsing and grazing pressure.
Then we need to set ambitious targets for the expansion of native woodland cover through strategically located planting and by encouraging natural regeneration. We know this is an investment which will pay off quickly through bringing biodiversity benefits, soil protection, water regulation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, habitat network development and the visual enhancement of landscapes.
The Trust is also keen to see policies which re-connect people and woodlands so more people can experience woodland wildlife and reap the physical and psychological benefits of doing so.
Finally, we will continue to call on forestry industries and other woodland dependant enterprises to be exemplars of sustainable development and contribute positively to the natural capital value of woodlands, be these softwood plantations or harvestable native hardwoods. Plantation forests could in future have a big role to play in providing quality habitat for wildlife and contributing more widely to habitat networks and ecosystem services.
The Trust commends the forestry sector on making some good progress on sustainable forest management and design in recent years. Many private companies have enthusiastically embraced the UK Forestry Standard and more and more are adopting ecologically sensitive designs for new plantations which retain important open ground habitats such as peatlands, and incorporate native species as an integral part of the forest rather than an afterthought. Several are ahead of the Forestry Commission Scotland in this respect on whose estate less than 20% of the trees are native species.
Despite recent progress, there are still plenty of examples of poor practice leading to problems such as soil erosion and sedimentation of rivers, damage to peatland habitats and unnecessary loss of veteran and non-harvestable trees during felling operations. The Trust will work constructively with the forestry sector to continue to drive up standards and create nature-rich forestry plantations that work economically, socially and ecologically. Continuous cover forestry and low-impact silvicultural systems are approaches which could help achieve such multiple benefits but take-up of these practices has been inexplicably slow in Scotland. Key to the adoption of such approaches will be improved guidance coupled with incentives through woodland planting and management grants.
At the Trust, we believe our target of 30% woodland cover by 2030 is more than achievable with some political will. The average forest cover for EU countries is 42%7 whereas we are still at less than 20% in Scotland. That's simply not good enough for a country with “the most ambitious carbon emissions reductions targets in the world” – we simply won't achieve the long term climate targets until we invest in carbon sequestering landscapes. Yes, this means planting trees, but perhaps more importantly it also means substantially reducing grazing pressure so nature can recover itself.
There are so few places where such natural recovery is happening. One of the few places I know where native woodland has recovered purely through natural regeneration over the past two decades is on the Isle of Eigg. Here, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the local community have removed grazing and provided the time and space for genuine re-wilding to unfold. This type of 'self-willed land' is usually halted in its tracks by unnaturally high densities of deer and sheep before the saplings of birch, eared sallow, grey willow or rowan reach more than a few centimetres high.
Within ten years, with the right policies in place, we could transform our landscapes from carbon sources into carbon sinks. In doing so we will create jobs and generate value for Scotland. Achieving the 30% target by 2030 will also save us money through realising the many costable benefits8 woodlands bring from flood protection, soil conservation, improved health for Scotland's people and a reliable future supply of one of the most useful materials known to humankind, wood.
Jonny Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust
1. Atherton I. D. M. (Editor), D. S. Bosanquet (Editor), Llawley M (Editor) (2010) Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: A Field Guide. British Bryological Society.
3. Mitchell, R. J., Richardson, E. A., Shortt, N. K., and Pearce, J. R.(2015) Neighborhood environments and socioeconomic inequalities in mental well-being. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 49(1), pp. 80-84.
4. See The Wildlife Trusts (2014) Flooding: Working with nature, not against it
5. See Scottish Natural Heritage webpages on Woolly Willow
6. Woodland Trust (2013) Benefits of trees on dairy farms
7. Forest Europe, UNECE, FAO (2011), State of Europe's Forests 2011 — Status and Trends in Sustainable Forest Management in Europe, Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe. Joint report, accessed 17 June 2014.
8. Bullock C., Hawe, J., & Little, D. (2013) Realising the ecosystem-service value of native woodland in Ireland. New Zealand Journal of Forestry Science 2014, 44(Suppl 1):S4