Scotland proclaims spread of forests - but conservationists aren't happy

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The Independent Online

A controversial scheme to replace the lost forests of Scotland was proclaimed an astonishing success yesterday with the news that the country has more trees than at any time in the past 700 years.

A controversial scheme to replace the lost forests of Scotland was proclaimed an astonishing success yesterday with the news that the country has more trees than at any time in the past 700 years.

A survey of Scotland's woodland areas has discovered that 17 per cent of the country is covered with trees. A century ago, because of the effect of the industrial revolution, the coverage was 5 per cent.

The National Inventory of Woodland and Trees for Scotland revealed that 1,347,500 hectares, about 17.2 per cent of Scotland's total land mass, is covered by forest, an increase of almost half since the previous survey in 1980.

"Few countries have tackled the issue of forest loss as vigorously as we have," said Allan Wilson, the Forestry Minister. "This is a wonderful success story of an enormous 'green' investment in the countryside; of increasing landscape diversity; of a huge recreational resource for people; of new and improved habitats for wild plants and animals; and of increasing opportunities for sustainable businesses."

Conservationists said, however, that the huge number of conifers planted – accounting for 69.3 per cent of all of Scotland's 18.58 million trees – had harmed wildlife. In particular, ecologists singled out the Sitka spruce. A native of Scandinavia, it was imported for its fast growth and soft wood, which made it commercially attractive.

George Baxter of the World Wide Fund for Nature Scotland, said: "We should be planting broad-leaf trees such as oak, birch and Caledonian pine, which made up the natural forest cover of Scotland and which would be good for wildlife and the hardwood timber industry. The legacy of the past blanket-planting of conifers has left us with industrial landscapes rather than natural wild ones which support the environment."

Mr Baxter continued: "These conifer plantations acidify the soil, shade out rivers and drive out the natural wildlife to create an almost ecologically dead environment which provides no benefit to the quality of the landscape.

"More than half of the tree cover in this report is Sitka spruce from Scandinavia, which doesn't fit into the natural ecology of Scotland as they create woodlands that are fairly dead in terms of insects, birds and mammal life".

However, the report claims that the area planted with native pine and broad-leaved species is growing and has increased by 68 per cent in 20 years.

Clifton Bain of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland said: "It is crucial that we get the right type of forests in the right places. Many of the current forests were planted without any thought of their impact on wildlife. Forests need to be designed to provide biodiversity for wildlife as well as a public amenity."

At one time, Scotland's forests covered 80 per cent of the land but they were cut down for shelter, fuel and farmland. By the 12th century the proportion of woodland was less than 20 per cent and the rate of decline increased during the industrial revolution. A shortage of timber during the First World War prompted the beginning of a reforestation programme.

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