Scottish Forestry budget cuts are ‘wrong and misguided’
The news that the Scottish Government has shaved more than £30m from its 2024 forestry budget has come as a blow to the forestry sector and raises important questions about its commitment to climate change mitigation.
Scottish Forestry’s budget for 2024-25 has been set at £70.1 million, compared with £103.7 million in 2023-24.
The Scottish Government has ambitious targets, trumpeted at the Glasgow COP26, to expand the nations forest area – from 16,500ha in 2023 to 18,000ha/year thereafter. The logic for these targets is set out in various documents, including the Land Use Strategy and draft Climate Change Plan. They also sit within a wider UK Government ambition to plant 30,000ha per year for climate change mitigation reasons. The Scottish Government also wishes to see a balance of native and commercial trees (40/60) in new planting.
However, afforestation levels have been running behind target and in 2023 fell to 8,200ha in Scotland (13,000ha planted in the UK as a whole vs the 30,000ha target). This is despite significant government grants of £3-5,000/ha in Scotland. Grants are a critical part of the equation for landowners deciding whether to switch from current land use (invariably agriculture) to trees. Afforestation at scale is not being delivered by the free market with current land prices.
Faced with the shortfall in woodland creation, the Minister responsible for forestry in Scotland, Mairi Gougeon, called a Forestry Summit with the great and the good of the Scottish forestry world in mid-December.
So, it is immensely frustrating that just the following week a decision was taken to slash support for afforestation. And not just by a bit. Planting grants have been reduced from £77m to £46m for 2024-25. A quick bit of maths indicates this is enough funding for 10-12,000ha. In other words, failure to meet its own targets is now baked into the Scottish system. Clearly addressing climate change is not as important as our politicians would allow us to believe.
I always like to consider what the market can do, unfettered by government policy. Is there an alternative source of funding? At present the only game in town is voluntary carbon funding. Adjustments to the Woodland Carbon Code mean that conifer afforestation effectively no longer qualifies, so WCC can’t help with that element of afforestation. Native tree planting does qualify under WCC, but at present there is very little evidence that WCC funding alone is sufficient.
In short, this reduction in the forestry budget is guaranteed to lead to less tree planting in Scotland. All of this at a time when the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee has just concluded that ‘UK consumption is unsustainable’, with our appetite for soy, palm oil, beef, coffee and timber leading to global deforestation.
Times are tough and hard choices need to be made, but as we face a biodiversity and climate crisis, reducing the spend on afforestation by 40% just seems wrong and misguided on many levels.
If you would like to know more about woodland creation in Scotland, or buying and selling forestry land, contact Simon Hart.