24 January 2017

S5M-03573 Forestry

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-03573, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on developing forestry in Scotland.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I will make some observations for what I think is likely to be a consensual debate—we are all travelling in the same direction on forestry, which is good.

Forestry, of course, has always provided a strategic product. For example, in 1511, the Great Michael was launched—the biggest capital ship in the world, at 1,000 tonnes in weight and 73m in length. The wood for the Great Michael required every tree in Fife to be cleared and timber to be imported from the Baltic and France. In that sense, timber played an important part in the 16th century in national life, and following the building of the Great Michael, a huge tree replanting programme was required.

The Forestry Commission was founded by the Forestry Act 1919 in the aftermath of the first world war, when France had 40,000km of trenches that were largely lined with timber. The percentage of the UK that was covered by forests had dropped to about 4 per cent coverage by 1919. Timber is not simply an amenity in terms of forests or something that feeds industry; it is a matter of strategic interest.

In a debate in the House of Commons in 1919, a Labour member, William Thorne, addressing the issue of where the land would be found to plant trees—it was an issue then, as it is now—simply said:

“Pinch it—take it over!”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 9 December 1919; Vol 122, c 1144]

I think that we have become a little more sophisticated in our approach to that issue since then. Nonetheless, where the land is to come from for planting trees is a substantial issue. I agree with Peter Chapman that we need to find ways of showing farmers that there is an intrinsic value for them and their businesses in making some of their land available for forestry.

I have some interest in using forests for shelter, and I think that farmers will find that it is useful for that purpose in some circumstances. I say that because where we live we are surrounded by trees on three sides and would be pretty open to the elements if that was not the case. The trees are also an amenity for us because in the forest that surrounds us we have foxes, roe deer, badgers, weasels, barn owls, buzzards, woodpeckers and a raft of other creatures. That situation is true of forests across Scotland and the UK.

Forests are a national asset and have things that are of interest to everyone. They draw the attention of not simply the industrial interests of bodies such as the Confederation of Forest Industries but of everyone who can benefit emotionally, practically and economically from forests. For those who, like me, enjoy walking, forests are among the most attractive places to go walking, provided that there are forest trails. The bit of forest around where I live is an example of the errors that have been made in the past, because the forest paths are all but overgrown and the forest has never been thinned. I think that the person who planted it—by the way, I am not sure who that was, which addresses Mr Wightman’s point—basically took the money and ran. It will probably cost more to take that forest down than the economic benefit that it would be likely to realise.

The management of forests is very important indeed, which is why I very much welcome Jim Mackinnon’s report on forestry, which is well informed and well researched. Jim Mackinnon is an excellent fellow, with only one major defect to his name: he is a supporter of Forres Mechanics Football Club—how sad is that?

Fergus Ewing: Is the member sure?

Stewart Stevenson: I am pretty sure that he supports Forres Mechanics. I apologise to Jim Mackinnon if I am wrong about that, but I am pretty sure that I am correct.

In Scotland, we have beautiful land and opportunities for planting more forests. Rhoda Grant was correct to say that we must plant them where we can harvest them. I would have liked to intervene on the one point that she missed, which was that in some places there is the opportunity for the marine removal of forests. I saw an effective scheme in that regard when I visited Raasay to open a new pier there when I was a minister. I think that that was the last time that I met Charles Kennedy. We had an excellent chat, as we always did when whenever we met.

The number of jobs in forestry is already substantial, but it can increase, because the number of uses to which we put forest products is increasing. They are now part of biomass and more of our houses are timber framed, so it is important that we have access to a ready supply of forestry goods.

Forestry also helps in relation to climate change, particularly where there are new plantings, because young trees are particularly well-adapted to absorbing CO2, whereas older, established forests that are left to moulder, perhaps like the one that surrounds our house, are less adept at absorbing CO2. We therefore have to make sure that we replant after we grant permission for forests to come down.

I welcomed last week the assent from members on the Tory benches—from Mr Chapman—to our share of the support for agriculture and forestry remaining the same after 2020. I want that to be delivered, because it is important for the forestry industry, as it is for rural Scotland as a whole.


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