A research approach combining analysis of key policy and planning documents together with discussions amongst stakeholders found that there are five distinct ‘visions’, or ‘positive descriptions of ideal futures’ for what an increase in woodland cover in Scotland might ideally look like. There is a great deal of consensus between different visions that woodland creation can, and should, provide many benefits including carbon storage, flood regulation and biodiversity conservation. However, some visions argue for more transformative approaches to afforestation, arguing that larger areas of woodland can both support sustainable livelihoods for local people and allow biodiversity to flourish across landscapes.
Public money can support woodland creation to provide public benefits
Contentious as it may be, it is recognised that Brexit has the potential to provide a window of opportunity to change way that public money is used to support different land uses in the UK. To date, European Union (EU) subsidies have largely been targeted at supporting agricultural land uses, with an increasing emphasis on ‘greening’ measures as part of this support in recent years. Stakeholders involved in this research agreed that there is potential for continuous streams of income to be provided to land managers in return for the many benefits provided by new (and mature) woodlands. This funding could come from a variety of sources, including corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes, large utility companies, or from a dramatic subsidy reallocation post Brexit.
Why is research required?
Compared to the rest of the EU, the amount of woodland in Scotland is low, sitting at just 18%, compared to an average of 40%. Government aspirations to increase woodland cover have stalled for a variety of reasons, amongst these an engrained divide between farming and forestry sectors, real or perceived conflicts with other land uses, and predominantly private ownership of both large areas of land and existing woodlands. This lack of progress is set against international urgency to restore and create woodlands as a way to tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss.
Analysis of key policy and planning documents, together with collaboration with stakeholders working in forestry, land use and conservation, found that there are five different visions for what an increase in woodland cover might ideally look like. The image below gives a short description of each. These were differentiated primarily by the extent to which new woodland should be integrated (or not) with other land uses, and by how intensively (or not) the woodlands should be used.
The use of visualisation techniques, where stylised landscapes and illustrated woodland types allowed stakeholders to effectively ‘design’ their ideal future landscape, was valued by the participants, helping to stimulate discussion and ideas.
The visions describe a range of anticipated benefits from woodland creation, although there are different emphases between them. There is general consensus that more woodlands will provide public goods, and that funding should be put in place for woodland creation to be able to provide these. Landscape scale collaboration and decision making, where stakeholders come together across catchment sized areas to discuss and plan, is widely perceived across visions to be the way forward in terms of managing decisions for woodland creation and other land use changes.
Opinions being to diverge when considering the amount of new woodland which should be created. Several visions, including Woodland Culture, Green Gold and Wild Woodlands, argue that much more woodland than the 3% increase aspired to by the Scottish Government is required. For Green Gold, this largely rests on the desire and need to increase domestic timber supply. Woodland Culture sees woodlands becoming a far more dominant aspect of the landscape, with people and other land uses integrating much more with trees and their products. For Wild Woodlands, a new approach giving over space for natural processes to function over larger areas, will result in large areas of naturally regenerating forest, home to a wide range of native and reintroduced species. By contrast, Multiple Benefits and Native Networks envisage smaller areas of woodland or woodland corridors integrating with other land uses.
There is also significant divergence in terms of how the visions viewed Land Reform and Community Empowerment. These two Scottish policy agendas aim to improve governance of the possession and use of land, in particular giving communities the right to buy land, especially where is being used in an environmentally detrimental way. Both Woodland Culture and Wild Woodlands argue that these agendas need to be further developed before many of the changes desired in each vision could happen. For Woodland Culture, Community Empowerment and a significant increase in community capacity (e.g. developing local skills and resources) was envisaged before the central aspects of the vision (e.g. strong local control and engagement in woodlands and a variety of woodland businesses) could be achieved.
For Wild Woodlands, Land Reform was a greater concern, with the current dominance of estates managed for deer and grouse being a key factor. Deer are a major factor in limiting the recovery of woodland. Stakeholders involved in Wild Woodlands wanted transformational change in land ownership, while also enhancing democratic processes, even if this was not in itself conducive to achievement of the envisioned woodland expansion. Thus, they stressed the importance of encouraging wider cultural shifts and the role of education, media and science communication in spreading the word about the potential benefits and ensuring such expansion occurred.
This research has demonstrated that using mixed methods and visualisation techniques can help to identify areas of common ground between stakeholders. By encouraging stakeholders to think through the actions that might be required to get to each vision, it also identified areas of governance that can be explored further to assist with sustainable land use planning.
It’s clear that there are many areas of agreement between stakeholders where the potential benefits of woodland creation are concerned. However, given that planting rates have stalled in recent years, it could be that more dramatic changes are needed in order to both achieve planting targets and deliver the many expected benefits. Some visions suggest that significantly more woodlands, managed under more diverse tenure, could be particularly beneficial. Approaches which collaborate with local people and communities, and encourage land managers to work across landscapes, are also expected to improve implementation of woodland creation.
There are significant opportunities to adopt similar visioning approaches on smaller scales with local people and land managers, as this could help to reach consensus at local scales. Modelling approaches can also be developed in order to explore what effect the visions could have on carbon storage, timber production, species movement and more. Overall, the process of eliciting the visions engaged and stimulated dialogue between stakeholders, and similar approaches can support more joined up and effective approaches to land use planning.
Link to the full research article
The full research article ‘Green Gold to Wild Woodlands; understanding stakeholder visions for woodland expansion’ is open access and is available for everyone to read here.
About the author
Vanessa Burton is a PhD researcher based between the University of Edinburgh and the Land Use and Ecosystem Services Science Group at Forest Research, Roslin.