50 for the Future – Transform conifer plantations

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, Jonny Hughes, the Trust's Chief Executive, takes us on a walk through a conifer plantation, discusses the pros and cons of such forests, and describes what the Trust believes should happen over the next 50 years.


Number 3: Transform large conifer plantations so over half contain at least 25% native species and a diverse range of tree ages, from saplings to future veteran trees.


A couple are hiking in the Scottish uplands – Megan an experienced ecologist and Dave a seasoned hillwalker.

“We’ll be lucky to see a meadow pipit, let alone a golden eagle, on this overgrazed, drained, eroded and burned hillside,” says Megan.

“I was hoping for a wee bit of scrubby woodland,” says Dave, “where we might see and hear a few warblers or a stonechat, but looks like there’s no woodland at all for miles ahead.”

“No, just acre upon acre of denuded moorland and rough grazing,” laments Megan. “What’s worse is that there’s a sharp shower about to hit us.”

Dave consults the map. “It looks like there might be a conifer plantation over this bluff. We might make it in time to avoid the worst of it.”

Ten minutes later, Megan and Dave enter a Sitka spruce plantation and a heavy downpour begins…

“This way Dave, if we can kick off a few of these dead lower branches we can get a least a few yards into the trees out of the wind and rain.”

“These plantations are damned tricky to get into, Megan – unless you have a handy machete!”

“Looks like this one is about 40 years old,” reckons Megan. “Have to wonder whether these trees will ever be harvested given the poor vehicle access up here, not to mention the pretty ropey quality of the timber. But if we’re quiet for a minute we might hear a goldcrest or maybe a chaffinch or coal tit – though the chances are this place is a bit too isolated from other forests to support many birds.”

“OK,” says Dave. “While we’re here, do you know what kind of moss this is?”

“It’s called Plagiothecium undulatum and is one of the only plants I know that can grow on the floor of an un-thinned Sitka plantation like this. It’s incredibly shade tolerant and pretty unmistakeable once you’ve got your eye in for it.”

Ten minutes later…

“OK, rain has subsided, shall we plough on?” suggests Megan. “I hear the landowner in the glen on the other side of this hill has brought down deer numbers substantially over the past few years and has been re-structuring his plantations. I suspect we might encounter a bit more life there.”  

“Good,” says Dave. “I’d like to see some wildlife!”

Perhaps the message of this story is don’t go walking in the hills of Scotland with ecologists – they will make you miserable with their tales of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss!

A Sitka spruce plantation on Arran. © Richard Webb

Many people visiting the Highlands are blissfully unaware of the history of Scotland’s land (ab)use, or that by the beginning of the 20th Century, Scotland was one of the most deforested countries in the world, with only 4.5% woodland cover. The sheer scale of this forest loss was staggering and despite the efforts of the past few decades, we have barely begun to recover our lost forest landscapes. Woodland cover in Scotland currently stands at around 18% of land area, or 1.41 million hectares, much of which comprises productive plantations of non-native species, principally Sitka spruce.

The Sitka spruce plantation that Megan and Dave sheltered in is not untypical of many plantations established in between the 1960s and 1980s. There are of course examples of plantations which were thinned at the appropriate time, have good access roads and were planted on soils which can support healthy tree growth. There are also far too many which were planted on deep peat, on wet fens, had poor or no road access, and have received minimal management since the contractors first put the trees in the ground.

Some of these plantations have become a liability for society and for their owners. Timber prices would need to be a lot higher than they are currently to make it economically viable to extract the trees. Abandoned, some have begun to blow over in storms making them dangerous places to walk in, let alone work in.

A fallen tree in a plantation at Beinn Lagan. © Richard Webb

But the story of Sitka spruce revolution in Scotland has its upsides too. Whilst some will always criticise the visual impact of the ‘serried ranks’ on the landscape, and the lack of species diversity under its dense canopy, it’s undeniable that Sitka produces timber at incredible speed. Unlike plastic and steel, timber is a zero carbon material and is increasingly used in construction as well as more typically for pallets, packing boxes, board manufacture and paper making. As we move into a low carbon era, timber products will become increasingly important, and species like Sitka are therefore likely to remain an essential component of our forests for the foreseeable future. 

That said, there are a number compelling reasons why we need to become less, not more, dependent on Sitka spruce in Scotland’s productive forests in the future.

First, we urgently need to make our forests more resilient to disease, severe weather and longer term climatic shifts. Mixed-species stands of trees with a healthy component of native species should naturally be more resilient to these future threats. They help spread the risk.

Second, biodiversity continues to decline in Scotland and we should take every opportunity to maximise the number of ecological niches in our plantation forests. In doing so, we will also make them more attractive places for leisure and recreational pursuits. There are already great examples of such ‘multi-functional forestry’ and with the right support, tens of thousands of hectares of sub-optimal forests could be transformed into real assets for the nation.

Third, re-structured plantations containing diverse tree species, a range of ages and future veteran trees will provide many non-market benefits, sometimes called ecosystem services. In particular, soil condition and water quality are likely to be significantly healthier in such ‘new generation plantations’.

Conifer removal at Chatelherault Country Park as part of the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership. © Archibald Photography Ltd.

The good news is that forest design has improved significantly since the days when Megan and Dave’s lunch spot was planted, helped in large part by vitally important Environmental Impact Assessments. In 40 years’ time, our friends will be more likely to enter the forest through a band of native broadleaved trees and shelter under a stand of Sitka spruce with a rich ground flora – at least in patches – thanks to trees of differing heights and ages.

At least this scenario will be the case if the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS), the reference standard for sustainable forest management, is properly applied in the coming years. The UKFS requires that:

  • Forests should be designed to achieve a diverse structure of habitat, species and ages of trees, appropriate to the scale and context.
  • Forests characterised by a lack of diversity due to extensive areas of even-aged trees should be progressively restructured to achieve a range of age classes.
  • Forests and woodlands should be managed in a way that conserves or enhances biodiversity; opportunities for enhancing biodiversity should be considered in forest management plans.
  • Forest management should maintain or enhance the resilience of forests and forest ecosystems in order to reduce the risks posed by climate change to their sustainability.

The signs are promising. The UKFS is being widely used and sustainable forest management is now second nature to many industry professionals, many of whom are also certified under FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification).

But challenges remain, and a lot more can be done by, for example, more widespread application of innovative forest re-structuring design after large-scale clear-felling of existing even-aged plantations. Low impact silvicultural practices such as shelterwood systems and continuous cover forestry are still not in the DNA of UK foresters, but with the right training and more opportunities to share best practice this could quickly change.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust will continue to work constructively with government and its agencies, industry bodies such as the Confederation of Forest Industries, local communities and other charities to help ensure the mistakes of the past become the productive, thriving forests of the future.

Our vision is that in the next 50 years, Scotland’s transformed forests will, more than ever, be providing a host of ecological, economic and social benefits to the nation.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Jonny Hughes is the Chief Exeuctive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust



Banner image © Richard Webb

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 In this week's 50 for the Future article, Jonny Hughes takes us on a walk through a conifer plantation, discusses the pros and cons of such forests, and describes what the Trust believes should happen over the next 50 years.

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