Bruce Spalding, who grew up in the highlands of Scotland, has been a forester all his life. He says professionals like him can plant up to 2,000 trees a day. By his own estimation, it takes him just 10 seconds to plant a tree. To maximise his efficiency, he uses a special pouch to hold the tools of his trade.
“This is called a Canadian planting harness and basically it allows the planter to have different species of trees. We’ve got three pouches, one either side and one on the back and also it can double up as a bag for holding fertiliser for putting some fertiliser on the young trees as well,” Spalding says.
Although planting season is usually in the winter, foresters have to keep a close watch on saplings and young trees as they are the most vulnerable in the first years after planting and sometimes have to be replaced. Spalding is doing just that by planting trees in areas where the last season’s saplings did not survive.
“I’m replacing dead trees for the last time. This particular part of the plantation is five years old and every year after planting you walk every row basically and replace the dead trees, so this is the last time I’m doing that.”
Scotland exceeded its planting target of 10-thousand hectares for the first time this year. One hectare is about the size of a rugby or American football field. The Scottish Government’s Minister for Rural Affairs and Natural Environment Mairi Gougeon says they plan to increase this target in the coming years.
“We’ve made this a massive focus for the government because obviously we’re facing a climate emergency and we have to try and do everything we can to try and tackle that and a huge part of that is tree planting because there’s so many benefits that come from that.”
“There’s the huge amounts of carbon that trees store, but as well as the knock on benefits that that has for the economy. So we’ve set really ambitious targets for the next few years so our targets right now are to plant 10,000 hectares a year. Last year we beat that target. We planted 11,200 hectares and to try and put that in context that is about 22 million trees and that stores about nine and a half tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere so it’s absolutely incredible but we don’t think that that’s good enough and we’ve increased those targets so that by 2025 we hope to be planting 15,000 hectares of new trees every year.”
According to Scotland’s Forestry Strategy, 100 years ago only 5 percent of Scotland’s land was covered in trees. The country’s trees were removed to make way for agriculture and infrastructure. The Forestry Act of 1919 was introduced to tackle the problem and by 2019 19 percent of the country is now covered in woodlands. The government aims to increase this to 21 percent of tree coverage by 2032.
With the help from Scottish Government grant schemes, the majority of those planting Scotland’s new woodlands are private companies. Stuart Goodall is the CEO of Confor, an organisation that represents commercial forestry and the wood processing sector. Goodall says part of the initiative to up the scale of tree planting is due to a projected shortfall in timber in the coming years.
“For us tree planting is an extremely important thing. We’ve got a number of drivers for that. As forestry people we love the idea of there being more forests with the benefits that they provide, but we’ve also got a challenge wherein about 20 to 50 years time we’ve got a shortfall in timber and we know we need to be planting more trees now in order to provide those increased supplies to help fill that falling away of availability.”
“So we’ve been working with the Scottish Government for some years now to put in place a scheme which pays people who wish to plant trees and to make sure that’s attractive and it also operates efficiently and as a result we’ve seen a significant increase in tree planting in recent years.”
According to the Environment Agency, flooding in the UK has increased over the last decade due to an increase in extreme weather events. As global temperatures and sea levels rise, intense storms are becoming more prevalent.
Goodall says for Scotland, a country with heavy rainfall that is prone to flooding especially in the summer months, trees can act as a flood defence as they soak up so much water.
“It means that we’re planting in some cases for flood prevention. A lot of the land, the hills, were denuded of trees hundreds of years ago when we introduced sheep. So now by putting trees back into the landscape we’re starting to protect areas in a natural way from flooding,” he says.
The Woodland Trust, a charity which focuses on planting trees native to Scotland and restoring existing woodlands, manages the Kinclaven Bluebell Wood. Here the charity is working with volunteers from the community in planting 34-thousand trees over a two-year period.
The saplings on the edge of the forest are protectively covered to make it difficult for deer to get to them. One of the big challenges for young trees in Scotland in their first years is shielding them from being eaten by hungry animals. George Anderson, a spokesman for the Woodland Trust, says the country could do even better and plant more trees each year.
“We think that the 10,000-hectare target was quite a modest one so we need to at least keep that going but with climate change breathing down our necks we have to do a lot better. And literally every tree is a soldier in the battle against climate change. Every tree we can get in the ground is going to soak up carbon.”
Anderson says part of Scotland’s success in reforestation lies in cooperation between the government, those who work in commercial forestry and those in conservation.
“We are now all singing from the same hymn sheet really and the Scottish Government has played a role in that. The government listens to us as they listen to the commercial sector.”
“And they see forestry as an important part of our country so I think that has been the reason. It’s got a higher profile here than it has in other parts of the UK and it’s seen as being important so I think a lot of the problems we used to have, they still have elsewhere, but because we’re in a smaller unit we can speak to each other. We understand each other more and there’s a common purpose. I think climate change gives us a common purpose.”
The Scottish Government intends to increase the number of trees it plants year on year and by 2024/2025 it aims to be planting 15-thousand hectares a year.