Comparisons between forestry in Scotland and Ireland are inevitable, not least because of similarities between the development of the forestry and forest products sectors in both countries. These include approaches to afforestation, tree species mix and silvicultural practices.
These have been highlighted in recent years, especially since the 2019 Mackinnon review of declining afforestation in Ireland, which drew on a similar exercise carried out by Jim Mackinnon in Scotland. This was followed by the appointment of Jo O’Hara last year to advise on the implementation of the Mackinnon review in Ireland.
The similarities between afforestation in Scotland and Ireland ended around 2018 when Scotland – unlike Ireland – began to address falling afforestation under O’Hara’s watch as then chief executive of Scottish Forestry. Since 2019, the Mackinnon review of Scotland’s afforestation programme has borne fruit, as average planting over the past three years has averaged 11,000ha compared with 4,760ha in 2017. Scotland has also been fortunate to have a major organisation – Confor – at the centre of forestry activity.
Confor is a membership organisation that promotes sustainable forestry and wood-using businesses throughout the forestry and wood supply chain in the UK. I asked Stuart Goodall, Confor’s chief executive, to comment on the UK’s approach to afforestation, especially the performance of Scotland’s planting programme.
DM: The average afforestation for Scotland over the past three years is 11,000ha, compared with 2,000ha in England. Why is this disparity so great?
SG: In Scotland, the minister [Fergus Ewing] took a personal interest and leading role in meeting the target from 2016 to 2021.
He asked what the barriers were and acted to overcome them, including improving the grant approval process. He also encouraged all types of planting to come forward – productive and biodiversity-focused.
In England, ministers haven’t spent the same amount of time and energy trying to meet the targets, meaning barriers haven’t really been addressed and grants are skewed towards narrow biodiversity and water quality objectives, so the volume of potential applications is much less.
You have visited Ireland and spoken at forestry conferences here, so you are familiar with both countries. Do you think there are lessons for Ireland given our annual afforestation is less than 2,500ha?
The main limitation in Ireland appears to be land, and there is opposition to land being taken out of agricultural production. I appreciate that the opposition from farmers may not be as strong in Scotland as it is in Ireland, but the Scottish government has helped by being clear that tree planting is a good thing and stating that they are determined to achieve their planting targets.
This sends a strong signal to the farming community that they shouldn’t simply try to dig their heels in, but instead look at how they can take advantage of what tree planting can offer.
Do you think Scotland will achieve its 18,000ha afforestation programme by 2025? What are the main selling points to politicians, landowners and other stakeholders in achieving this ambitious target?
I think it’s ambitious, but achievable. Carbon is the big selling point to politicians, supported by farm diversification and restoring nature. Land-owners can make money, make their enterprises more resilient through diversification, and make their contribution to tackling climate change.
For others, the focus of interest is often more about native woodlands and the perceived benefits they provide, which is why in Scotland, all types of forest are planted.
Apart from afforestation, could you sum up the overall industry performance now in Scotland and the impact of COVID-19?
The sector is in good health. Prices for sawn timber and board are very strong and that value is being passed back up the supply chain to the grower. Most activity continued during the various lockdowns, once Confor was able to secure recognition from governments that wood is an essential product – for pallets to move food and pharmaceuticals, energy to heat homes and hospitals, and fencing for farmers to grow food.
Looking ahead, government support using more wood in construction and house-building and recognising its carbon benefits will be a feature, as well as a willingness to work with the industry to tackle key challenges to growth such as skills.
Stuart Goodall will be one of the key speakers at the 2021 National Forestry Conference “The right trees in the right places for the right reasons”. Organised by the Society of Irish Foresters, this webinar event will take place on 14 October 2021. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
The latest All Ireland Roundwood Production Forecast 2021-2040 predicts the annual potential log supply will increase from 4.7m m3 this year to 7.9m m3 by 2035 (Table 1). This will be followed by a small decrease to 7.6m m3 up to 2040.
“Realising this large increase in potential production will entail significant capital investment in roads, harvesting equipment and wood processing,” says Eugene Hendrick, COFORD chair.
“A key element in realising the potential will be to address current licensing challenges and develop a new and more efficient licensing framework for the future.
“COFORD welcomes the work being done through Project Woodland to address these immediate and longer-term issues, as an efficient licensing process is key to achieving the forecasted levels of supply.”
Coillte annual production remains level throughout the forecasted period at 2.7m m3, while private annual net realisable volume (NRV) is forecast to increase from 1.47m m3 to 4.43m m3 by 2035, with a fall-off in production to 4.18m m3 by 2040. Northern Ireland log production is forecast to increase by 55% to 790,000m3 over the next 15 years, falling back to 700,000m3 from 2035 to 2040.
“Since the previous forecast, the operating environment for forestry has become increasingly complex, with issues around the licensing of harvesting, forest roads, afforestation and the devastating spread of ash dieback across the country,” maintain the authors of the forecast, Henry Phillips, Myles McDonagh, Michael Fairgrieve, Liam Malone and John Redmond.
“In addition, Britain, which is Ireland’s largest market for timber products, left the EU in January 2021, adding a further element of complexity to forecasting and future timber demand.”