When it comes to woodland expansion, there are some grand and ambitious goals being set by the Scottish Government. Foresters have now committed to create 12,000 Ha of new woodland every year – (an area the size of Manchester) – and perhaps inevitably, the thrust of these new trees will come in the form of commercial softwoods in the Southern Uplands. I went to a meeting in Moffat yesterday to hear more about the plans and how the creation of vast new spruce plantations will impact birds like curlews and black grouse.
It’s always seemed blindingly obvious to me that the massive afforestation which took place in the 1970s and ’80s sent moorland birds into a tailspin. I had assumed that this was common knowledge, and I often bemoan the fact that we’ll be counting the cost of that planting for generations to come. Sure enough, the meeting began with two cast-iron presentations from RSPB and GWCT which explained (with a considerable weight of scientific fact) how woodland creation negatively impacts on ground nesting birds. So far, so logical, but then things took a turn towards the unexpected.
The meeting was held for foresters and forest interests were extremely well represented in the room – (I was the only farmer). In the wake of these presentations, it became clear that many attendees were unwilling to accept that forest creation has played a part in wader and black grouse decline. Questions and comments from the floor seemed to offer a number of alternative explanations for why moorland birds have now vanished from many of their former strongholds.
Some said it was climate change, and others blamed an increased number of predators on game bird releases. Using recent video footage of a sheep eating curlew eggs, there was even an attempt to imply that livestock are responsible for the decline of waders. Farming is certainly not exempt from criticism, but this felt like an obfuscatory rejection of responsibility. It was hard to hear, particularly since after dismissing peer-reviewed RSPB and GWCT science, consensus seemed to settle on a feeling that “it’s complicated, and science can’t prove that foresters are to blame”. But even if we pretend that we don’t understand cause and effect, pressing ahead with planting would still be a reckless abandonment of the precautionary principle.
Subsequent presentations went into detail on how forest expansion can be mitigated to incorporate wild bird habitats. Foresters are quick to say that they’re doing better work than they used to, but the reality is that mitigation often seems to settle around the bare minimum. Besides, paraphrasing a comment from somebody on a nearby table, the sentiment was “give it ten years; these birds will be gone and we won’t have to mitigate for them anymore”.
The only real glimmer of light for waders and blackgame is that future planting schemes will be guided by a regional approach towards woodland creation where land use can be organised on the basis of strategic planning. In “core” priority areas, black grouse and curlews will be given precedent in order to protect them. But the unspoken implication is that outside their “core areas”, birds are going to be lost.
I fundamentally disagree with the rationale behind softwood timber expansion in Scotland. It’s been conflated with panic around the Climate Emergency, and I think this is fairly misleading, but park that for a moment and assume that we genuinely need to create 12,000 Ha of new forest every year. At a relatively utilitarian national level, surely it makes sense to prioritise focus areas and keep birds in some places rather than lose them everywhere?
But what if you live and work in a place where moorland conservation is going to be thrown out of the window? Does that mean that it’s time to give up and walk away? Will funding and support be withdrawn from people who are trying to conserve curlews in places where the birds are not a priority? That’s where this may be heading, but are we honestly going to give up on the dream of integrated land management which offers something for everyone? That seems pathetically unambitious and fatalistic. And besides – at an ecological level, how do we quantify the impact of losing birds which currently live in marginal areas? Do we know enough to make decisions about what we can afford to abandon? I had already considered much of this, but it was quite something to hear it being expressed in such bullish terms.
I wriggle and fuss about woodland expansion all the time, and I get tired of it. I even wondered whether to bother writing this blog article, because yet again I’m fighting a losing battle – it’s going to happen, no matter what I think.
But I muster the enthusiasm to write again because in the midst of excitement about woodland expansion, I don’t think Galloway’s story is being heard. There are plenty of great examples of woodland expansion being well integrated across Scotland. There’s a new strategic planning method being trialled in the Scottish Borders which could be a lifesaver for waders, and there’s loads to get excited about when it comes to timber (and black grouse) from native woodlands. I don’t foam and spit at forestry per se, but something unique is happening in the southwest.
Galloway has been earmarked for industrial-scale softwood timber development, and that’s got nothing to do with conservation or aesthetics. Whether we like it or not, we’re about to see a vast and totally irreversible shift in the way our landscape looks.
It doesn’t hit the headlines because nothing in Galloway ever does, but I’ve met foresters who’ve said that their aim is to “fill in the blanks” in south west Scotland – to plant up the land which wasn’t planted last time around. Galloway is not Perthshire or Peebles or some well-beloved part of the Scottish landscape. We’re a bizarre outback corner which no right-minded person gives a damn about. And we’re vulnerable because we’re Scotland’s blind spot; we find ourselves staring down the barrel of what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic and abrupt land use intensifications in Western Europe in recent years. We’re facing change on a completely different order of magnitude, and it’s happening almost completely under the radar.
Knowing that this is all to come, I’m left scratching my head. I’ve seen too much of what this place used to be to ever forget it. But walled in black trees and sorely missing the birds which used to buoy me, I wonder how long I will still recognise my own home.