Although Scotland is more heavily forested than England or Wales, much of its woodlands have been lost to logging, urban sprawl and climate change. Initiatives to reverse deforestation have been underway to contribute more trees, protect woodlands and ensure the ecology, sustainability and longevity of Scotland’s forest resources.

the middle of a forest

Why has reforestation become important in recent years? Last summer, a YouGov poll found that the environment is now viewed as the third most critical public issue, given our planet’s burgeoning climate crisis. Reforestation has thereby become an important tool in combatting Earth’s climate emergency.

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Essentially, trees fight climate change and offer a solution. How? Planting trees encourages the absorption of carbon dioxide, one of the key greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The more trees planted, the better they are at making a positive impact.

According to the British nonprofit Woodland Trust, the harnessing of tree power significantly counteracts climate change: “Each year an estimated 20 million tonnes of CO2 are absorbed and locked away by the UK’s existing trees and woods.”

And, in the face of a planetwide environmental emergency, the increase of forest cover in Scotland, and by extension the United Kingdom, can help towards achieving Britain’s carbon zero target of 2050. Thus, implementing a sustainable cycle of replanting immediately after harvesting ensures the healthy renewal of both the supply of wood and the reduction of atmospheric carbon.

“There is also a huge environmental significance to the increase in tree planting,” Fergus Ewing, Rural Economy Secretary, explained further. “In Scotland alone, around 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year are removed from the atmosphere by our forests – this is a clear example of why an increase in tree planting is so important in the fight against climate change.”

In 2019, the Independent reported on Scotland planting 22 million trees. England, by contrast, “is falling significantly short of its targets” with “just 1,420 hectares of woodland was planted, despite a target of 5,000 hectares being set.” In other words, England “missed its annual target by seven million trees.” Therefore, as of last year, the UK’s amount of woodland cover remains at 13%, with Northern Ireland at 8%, England at 10%, Wales at 15% and Scotland at 19%.

a heavily forested green landscape with a track running through it

Indeed, Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor, “a membership organisation for sustainable forestry and wood-using businesses,” said: “Scotland is leading the way in the UK, with 84% of all new planting happening in Scotland.”

Meanwhile, The Woodland Trust encourages the turning of a new leaf for another reason. Besides helping to tackle our planet’s climate crisis, planting trees and increasing tree cover also resets nature, improving ecosystem equilibrium for the protection of fragile habitats in Scotland and across the UK. Woodlands, at the heart of it all, support pollinators and endangered flora and fauna species. Restoring forests, then, would mean more protection for native wildlife, nurturing local biodiversity and the overall stewardship of the environment.

Reforestation delivers yet other environmental public goods beyond improving habitats. Flood risks are alleviated. Soil quality and quantity are maintained. Wildfires are reduced, and the land can recover faster. Landscapes are also preserved, made more versatile and resilient. These benefits are far-reaching for land managers, not just of farms but also of landed estates.

Besides conserving the forest, its wildlife, soil and landscape, trees are imperative for the maintenance of local water resources. Scottish Forestry has documented that a healthy forest “is also fundamental to good water quality.” Understandably, a healthy forest ensures resilient catchment, especially for groundwater, indicating that a good forest will help restore underground water reservoirs. But trees can also hold water and maintain the water vapor in the air, thus encouraging precipitation so that the water cycle for an area remains robust.

Interestingly, creating new woodland also helps protect existing ones that hold high conservation value, especially where ancient trees live and where wildlife struggles to thrive. As such, these ancient or established woodlands are irreplaceable as habitats, becoming strongholds for vulnerable flora and fauna. One such paragon is Scotland’s rainforest, more commonly known as the Atlantic woodland or Celtic rainforest, situated along the west coast and the inner isles, says the BBC

a forest with green and yellow trees

“Scotland’s rainforest is just as lush and just as important as tropical rainforest, but is even rarer,” Adam Harrison of Woodland Trust Scotland shared. This rainforest “is a unique habitat of ancient native oak, birch, ash, pine and hazel woodlands and includes open glades and river gorges. Our rainforest relies on mild, wet and clean air coming in off the Atlantic, and is garlanded with a spectacular array of lichens, fungi, mosses, liverworts and ferns. Many are nationally and globally rare and some are found nowhere else in the world.”

Gordon Gray Stephens, of the Community Woodlands Association, which was established as a representative body of Scotland’s community woodlands groups, said, “Our vision for regenerating Scotland’s rainforest is clear. We need to make it larger, in better condition, and with improved connections between people and woods.”

Unfortunately, development sprawl and human activity (logging, overgrazing, mismanagement, invasive species introductions) threaten Scottish woodlands, both ancient and new, unique and common. Vegetation is cleared, and native animals are evicted. In the UK, the term is called ‘habitat fragmentation’ — which the Woodland Trust describes as “when parts of a habitat are destroyed, leaving behind smaller unconnected areas. This can occur naturally, as a result of fire or volcanic eruptions, but is normally due to human activity.” Fragmentation adversely impacts wildlife because it creates environmental “loss of total habitat area,” “reduction in habitat quality” and “increased extinction risk.”

a forested landscape with rolling hills in the background

And so, while there have been proposals and legislation seeking to overcome status quo shortcomings, more work needs to be done to bridge the extensive environmental governance gap. Conservation efforts through woodland restoration, the planting of trees and advocacy for environmentally-friendly legislation all help as starting points. 

One Scottish charity invested in rewilding the Scottish Highlands, Trees for Life, advocates for more trees by informing the public of why trees are positively transformative, even beyond fighting climate change, preserving native trees and securing wildlife habitats for species survival. The additional benefits from woodlands include providing the natural environs for people to decompress for restorative wellness and absorbing pollutants (ammonia, nitrogen oxides, ozone, sulfur dioxide) to clean the air.

Only by offsetting the poor management, curtailed budgets and neglect of years past can Scottish woodland heritage be safeguarded to ensure a healthy, resilient and sustainable future. 

Images via Pixabay