Only about 1 per cent of Scotland's forests are made up of native trees, and between 80 and 90 per cent of those are 'dying on their feet', according to researchers at the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The organisation, which published its Forests in Trouble report yesterday, hopes to instigate a global campaign to help protect and regenerate native temperate forests. About 90 per cent of such forests outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (whose figures were too unreliable for inclusion) have been destroyed. But the forests' plight has been overshadowed by the fight to save rainforests.
Martin Mathers, who works for the fund in Scotland, said: 'People still dream of heather-clad Scotland. We have to re-educate people so they realise how valuable and wonderful a forest is.'
In Scotland the problem is not one of quantity, but quality. In 1919, only 3 to 4 per cent of the country was under trees. That figure now stands at around 14 per cent. But in the same period more than half of the native tree stock disappeared, leaving just 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) of native tree cover. Nigel Dudley, the author of the report, said: 'The planting of fir trees in straight lines in countries where they do not grow naturally is no more a forest than a wheatfield is a meadow.'
Another problem in Scotland is over-grazing by sheep and wild red deer. Farmers can claim grants to keep sheep, under schemes aimed at protecting their livelihoods. Scottish estates are often kept as 'executive toys', Mr Mathers says, where it is in the short-term interest of owners who use their land for hunts to keep as many deer as possible. But grazing of both types of animal is madness if people look further ahead, the fund says. The tree stock on such estates is often more than 200 years old - too mature to produce seeds. Grazing prevents young trees from taking root.
'Scotland's isolation had produced an ecosystem which was unique, but which has now been lost. Norwegian and sitka spruce fir trees are now the most common trees in Scotland,' Mr Mathers said. 'This government has not taken powers to itself to protect our remaining native forests,' he added. 'There is no effective mechanism for protecting these forests except ownership.'
Mr Mathers condemned the system of tax incentives that operates in Britain. 'We are not suggesting that the Government ban plantations tomorrow, but we have to put a lot more forests aside. British taxpayers are effectively paying pounds 90m a year to subsidise the forest industry but only about a quarter of our forests are being properly managed: in the rest it is just business as usual.'
The document identifies three main threats to temperate forests elsewhere in the world. These are logging of old-growth forests, trees being treated as crops in a market shift from timber to pulp and paper production, and increasing pressure on trees from air and water pollution.
The report says regions at risk include eastern Europe and Scandinavia, Canada, China, Alaska and the Pacific north-west of the United States.
In Canada, at least 60 per cent of British Columbia's ancient forest has been cut along 500 miles of coastline. The government in Chile has encouraged landowners to cut thousands of hectares of native forest every year to plant fast- growing conifers for export to Japan as woodchip.
Countries should consider preservation orders, carefully managed plantations and the setting aside of native forests to allow them to regenerate naturally.
Forests in Trouble; WWF International, 1196 Gland, Switzerland. Tel: 010 41 22 364 9111.Reuse content