As an Orcadian, my appreciation of trees and their various benefits, or even the fact that they existed as an important component of the countryside, came comparatively late to me.

Scotland's environment web
April 06, 2017

Woodlands and forests: what are they for?

The Orkney landscape is largely devoid of woodland and I well remember encountering trees in the village of Dunbeath on family holidays ‘sooth’ in the 1960s and finding them, well different. This must seem odd to a mainland Scot I am sure, in the same way as folk from further south are intrigued by the ‘big skies’ of the north. These are the sort of differences across Scotland that help make it the unique place it is.

When I first started my career in soil survey, to be honest, I absolutely hated woodlands. You couldn’t see where you were going, it was dark, you had no idea of your precise location (no GPS in those days) and the woodland cover made any interpretation of the landscape and the identification of boundaries between different soils very difficult.

In the mid-1980s, woodland cover was expanding rapidly in Scotland (between 20,000-25,000 hectares per annum) and there was some concern that some of this was to the detriment of other land use interests. The then Macaulay Institute for Soil Research had developed the Land Capability for Forestry (LCF) classification and with funding from the Forestry Commission, it was applied to provide a strategic national overview of the capacity of Scotland’s land to grow both softwood and hardwood trees.

It was from a primarily timber producing perspective, rather than one that encompassed biodiversity interests as well. This resource is still used by a variety of woodland user groups and is one of the map layers you can find on the newly updated Scotland’s soils website.

But in the 1990s, interests in woodland moved towards more 'multifunctional’ forestry; rather than producing just timber, woodlands can be biodiversity hotspots, protect water courses from diffuse pollution, provide recreational opportunities and, as part of the developing climate change debate, store carbon. To achieve some of these objectives, an increasing proportion of new woodlands (and the restocking of existing woodlands) comprised native woodlands.

To help identify where and what type of native woodlands were most appropriate in different places, the Macaulay Institute developed and applied the Native Woodland Model to produce maps of native woodland potential across large parts of upland Scotland; these maps were NOT designed to tell landowners what  type of woodland should be there but what could be there.

It is a tool to help decision making and is not a substitute for going out onto the land itself (which is indispensable and also more fun!).

Increasingly through my career, woodlands were seen as a key part of helping to mitigate against climate change by increasing the amount of carbon stored in the trees themselves and in the soil. These opportunities were not identified in some earlier planting regimes and mistakes were made, but forest management is much less intrusive now, particularly during the period when we want the trees to establish. Indeed, expansion by natural regeneration through seed dispersal with little disturbance of the soil is common these days. Some research I have been involved in has demonstrated that soil carbon does increase but we must wait to find out if this is long term or not. Colleagues are currently working on producing detailed soil maps that will help guide what second rotation species are best suited in different places to achieve the wide range of benefits that trees provide.

So, it would appear that from my initial profound dislike of woodland as a place of work, that has changed somewhat and provided me with several interesting aspects to my career. Public expectations of woodland have also changed over the past 40 years and this has been reflected in changes in woodland policy and practice. I well recall a story told to me by a senior forestry official being asked by a government minister "what can forestry do to help alleviate poverty?". As the saying goes, money doesn’t grow on trees, but there is clear evidence that there are many health benefits associated with woodlands; they are part of our natural health service and play a valuable role in our wellbeing.

Want to know more?

If Willie's blog has got you thinking about forests, woodlands and trees, you can find out more on our website. There's lots of information under the timber and forestry products and the woodlands and forests sections.

Or why not have a read of our latest newsletter - Part 1 introduces the topic and looks at what information and data is available on Scotland's environment website, and Part 2 focuses on what our partners are doing to protect and improve our forests and woodlands.

There's also a wealth of information on the Forestry Commission Scotland website.


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