In this discussion paper, published by Reforesting Scotland, Jim Knight argues for a creative blurring of the boundaries between ‘production’ and ‘natural’ forest, with a greater emphasis on natural regeneration in both. Jim is a founding trustee of the Borders Forest Trust and a retired Lead Officer for Natural Heritage with Scottish Borders Council.

See the Contents page below, skip to the text or view the paper as a pdf. A shorter print version of this article is published in Scottish Forestry Volume 73 No. 3. Winter 2019.


1 Introduction
2 Background: How Scotland’s forests have developed
2.1 Emerging differences with mainland Europe
2.1.1 Changes to the Ecological Baseline caused by Human Intervention
2.1.2 Consequences of Deforestation
2.1.3 Narrow Species Base Caused by Long Term Climate Change
2.1.4 Weakened resilience
2.2 Recent history: Arresting the decline
3 Issues with Current Forestry Practice
3.1 ‘Productive conifer’ model based on UK Forestry Standard
3.2 Issues with the ‘Productive’ Model
3.3 ‘Native Woodland’ Model
3.4 Issues with the ‘Native Woodland’ Model
3.5 General planting issues
3.6 Other Models
3.7 Risks of continuing with the present approach
3.8 Two Schools of Forestry: Closing the gap
3.9 Reconsidering ‘Native’ versus ‘Exotic’
3.10 Future Natural
3.11 Problems with Future Natural
3.12 European examples
4 Proposed Unified Approach based on European Examples
4.1 Regeneration priority
4.1.1 A coordinated national approach to herbivore management
4.2 A wider palette of species
4.2.1 Use the full range of valued species in a sustainable way
4.3 What it might look like
4.4 New Land Use Patterns
4.4.1 Future Natural Forestry and Agriculture
4.4.2 Future Natural Forestry and Field Sports
4.4.3 Future Natural Forestry and Conservation
4.4.4 Future Natural Forestry and the Landscapes of Scotland
4.4.5 Future Natural Forestry and Climate Change
5 Conclusion
About the Author

1 Introduction

The Scottish Government has published its policy ‘Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019 – 2029’[1], which includes the overarching vision that:

“In 2070, Scotland will have more forests and woodlands, sustainably managed and better integrated with other land uses. These will provide a more resilient, adaptable resource, with greater natural capital value, that supports a strong economy, a thriving environment, and healthy and flourishing communities.

At a time when forestry in Scotland is again being promoted as a key element of the rural economy and a response to climate change, it is useful to consider what form these future forests could take and what society wants from them.  This paper looks at the current options that are expected to deliver the Scottish Government’s vision and some of the unresolved issues they raise.  It proposes a model for future forestry that does not appear to have been given enough consideration and looks also at the likely consequences this would have for other land uses.  It focuses mainly on upland Scotland but the proposal has some wider implications in the rest of the British Isles. 

2 Background: How Scotland’s forests have developed

In order to consider where forestry in Scotland might go, it is useful to first consider where it has come from.  The history of modern forestry in the UK can be traced back to the formation of the Forestry Commission in 1919. The Commission was founded in response to the extreme depletion of forest cover at the end of the First World War when it was estimated to be lower than 5% of land area.[2]  In 2010, forest cover in the UK as a whole was recorded at around 11% (now 13%) of land area, and for Scotland around 18%.  This compares to a European average of 38% with countries such as Finland, Sweden and Slovenia recording over 60% of land area.[3] [4]

Prior to the Commission, forestry was largely an activity practised by a few enlightened land owners, generally on a relatively modest scale, and often associated with agricultural improvement in the late 17th right through the 18th century, along with the establishment of game and fox coverts and the general fashion for the ‘beautification’ of their estates.  Overall however, the picture has been one of steady decline in woodland cover in Scotland and the wider British Isles since the first clearances of native forest for agricultural purposes some 5-6,000 years ago.  Professor Chris Smout puts the major decline in woodland cover from the Iron Age and suggests that possibly more than half had been lost by the time of Christ. [5]  According to Derek Yalden, woodland cover in Great Britain as a whole was gradually replaced by farmland from around 5,000 years ago, so that when the Romans arrived in southern Britain they invaded a farmed landscape. [6]

2.1 Emerging differences with mainland Europe

Human settlement has taken place the world over and one might ask why tree cover has been so continuously depleted in the British Isles when many parts of nearby continental Europe continue to support significant forest cover, despite being subject to very similar development pressures.  Differences in climate cannot be the cause because well forested parts of the nearby continent are very similar climatically to the British Isles in terms of growth potential, although the exposed Atlantic west is more prone to severe gales.  Indeed, the mild, damp maritime climate of the UK is arguably able to support a wider diversity of tree and shrub species and trees of larger size and more rapid growth than most of its European neighbours.  Forest loss in the UK is often attributed to direct felling to clear the ground for agriculture.  That must certainly have been a cause of significant deforestation but it cannot account for the difference between the UK and the continent since such forces were equally at work on both sides of the channel.  Other direct causes such as fire may have had a role but, again, are not confined to the British Isles and so cannot explain the difference.  Very steep slopes such as are found in the Alps do afford some protection to forest cover by limiting access both human and animal.  Differences in human population density may also have had a role.

There is, however, one very obvious difference in quality between many UK and continental forests that is still clearly evident today.  A visit to a continental forest in Brittany, say, or Norway, will quickly reveal that, generally, such forests are actively regenerating and contain dense areas of ‘self propagated’ young trees.  Many European forests are composed almost entirely of such ‘self sown’ tree cover and there is little or no direct planting because it is simply not necessary.  This affects the way that forestry is practised but it also profoundly influences the extent of forest cover because, in a regenerating environment, any land that is left unattended simply reverts to its natural state – which is forest.  So why does this not similarly apply in the UK?

In the right conditions, British Isles soils are just as fertile and trees are just as fecund as their continental neighbours but UK forest owners are only too familiar with the need to protect young trees, planted or self-seeded, from browsing and grazing.  We can make the obvious conclusion that tree regeneration in most Scottish and British land is or has been suppressed by more intense grazing pressure from a wider range of both domestic and wild herbivores than comparable sites in, say, Norway or France – but why should this be so? 

2.1.1 Changes to the Ecological Baseline caused by Human Intervention

The ‘original’ post-glacial British fauna was broadly similar, in terms of species assemblages, to that of adjoining continental countries but there are now some major differences.  Because of human action we have lost important fauna such as the large carnivores (wolf, bear, lynx) and some of the large herbivores (elk, aurochs).  There is no prospect of any of these species returning unless deliberately re-introduced, unlike continental Europe where some have been able to return through a combination of deliberate re-introductions and natural re-colonisation.  

However, the loss of large carnivores does not fully explain the differences between UK and continental forest cover.  Wolves and lynx are present in both France and Norway but their numbers and extent are limited and they do not exist in many of the forests that nevertheless show abundant regeneration, e.g. in Brittany.  There must be other factors at work and the most obvious of these is, again, human intervention in the form of hunting, or rather differences in hunting behaviour between the UK and the continental situation where hunting, particularly of deer, is carried out at sufficient intensity to allow forests to regenerate. 

The British Isles have also ‘gained’ a number of new species through human introductions, including several species of deer (fallow, sika, muntjac etc.), rabbits and grey squirrels, as well as considerable numbers of feral and domestic livestock including goats, sheep, cattle, horses and ponies.  Although hunting for meat in medieval times kept the numbers of some herbivore species such as roe deer and rabbit in check, these are now re-established at very high numbers in lowland areas.  Over the centuries, the net effect of all these changes is a considerable increase in the overall herbivore presence on the land and increased grazing and browsing pressure on young trees and this has pushed much of Scotland past the ‘tipping point’ at which there was sufficient successful regeneration for tree cover to be the norm.  In effect, the ecological balance has been re-set for increased herbivory at many levels, to the detriment of forest regeneration.  This has led to British forests becoming increasingly aged and decrepit as the cohorts of younger trees failed to develop due to repeated and continuous browsing and grazing.  Timber, once felled, could not easily be replaced and even established trees can be damaged by bark stripping, usually at the base, decreasing the value of the timber.  This has had a number of consequences.

2.1.2 Consequences of Deforestation

The differences between British and continental forests have developed over the centuries.  It is impossible to know for sure but it seems more than likely that many continental forests (e.g. the valuable veneer oak forests of France) that have been constantly and productively harvested over the centuries will also have been more carefully tended, in terms of deer control, in order to maintain their vitality and productivity, including a whole gamut of ‘non timber’ products such as various fruit and berries, truffles and other fungi, often seen as local community benefit.  That chain of ‘forest husbandry’ seems largely to have been broken in the UK. 

Another consequence of deforestation is that Scottish builders have been obliged to look elsewhere for construction materials and, today, stone is considered to be the ‘traditional’ Scottish building material.  This was not always the case and timber was widely used when available.[7]  As it became scarcer, there was increasing reliance on imported supplies.  The skills associated with harvesting timber and building with wood also declined.  Without a continued value as a source of building materials, woodlands lost an important reason for their protection and maintenance.

Cultural differences, particularly, the persistence of a long standing forest culture in many parts of Europe, must be a strong factor in explaining the relative differences in forest cover between the British Isles and much of northern Europe.  However, that still leaves unanswered the question of how these differences arose in the first place.

2.1.3 Narrow Species Base Caused by Long Term Climate Change

It is proposed that there is another important contributory reason why Scottish and British forests have not been as actively maintained in the historical past as compared to the more resilient forests on the continent, and that is the composition of the UK native flora itself, particularly the tree and shrub flora.  At the end of the last glaciation around 11,000 years ago, most of the British Isles north of the Thames and virtually all of Scotland was ground that had recently been covered by ice and was freshly exposed by the big melt.[8]  We know that the English Channel formed around 8,000 years ago[9] severing direct links to the continental mainland.  This left a short window of opportunity of only some 3,000 years for the slow processes of woodland colonisation to occur.  Thereafter, any new species had to rely on transportation, perhaps in the crop or gut of birds or by human influence (because people carried plants that were useful to them) in order to cross the sea and reach what had become the British Isles. 

Although the exact pathways to post-glacial re-colonisation are not fully understood, the result of these constraints is that Britain in general and Scotland in particular have a very limited native flora as compared to mainland Europe, which itself has a limited native flora when compared to either North America or east Asia.[10]  The native species list is largely composed of first-stage post-glacial pioneers such as the sub-alpine willows and some ‘boreal’ species including downy and silver birch, aspen, alder, juniper and Scots pine, mostly species with wind borne seeds. (Scots pine may have survived as a relict population rather than relying purely on re-colonisation. [11] )

Further colonists requiring warmer conditions and more developed ‘brown earth’ soils include ash and elm and of course oak which, because its seed is sometimes dispersed by birds such as jays, could have colonised after the Channel formed.  These are species of the ‘cool temperate’ broadleaf forest zone.  Other species with bird transported seeds include rowan, hawthorn, blackthorn and hazel as well as gean, bird cherry and lime and, in England, beech, hornbeam and field maple, all of which had the potential to cross over the Channel and so could have colonised after the Channel was formed.  For shade bearing understorey species, again with bird dispersed seeds, we can add holly and yew.  This short list already identifies most of the native UK tree species (and of course, beech, hornbeam and field maple are not considered native in Scotland). [12]

Compared with modern Scotland’s current tree cover, it is very obvious that many common and commercially important species are missing from the native inventory.  The spruces, larches and firs and various other species of pine, all with largely wind-dispersed seeds, failed to reach the British Isles before the English Channel severed the land bridge.  These genera are all present as natives on the European mainland but have had to rely on human introduction to arrive in the UK.  The list of introductions also includes the maples (including sycamore), chestnuts, most poplars and all the other species which we find throughout the UK today.  Alan Mitchell identifies 500 species of trees capable of growing and now commonly present in the British Isles with up to 1,700 species if rare collections are included.[13]  This is compared to a baseline of only 35 native species for the UK as a whole.  Our Scottish native tree list comes, depending on the status of various willows and sub-species, to around 30, and this includes species such as blackthorn which are normally considered as shrubs. 

This deficit in the number of native species is very significant.  The great majority of the Scottish native trees are ecological pioneers.  They are largely light-demanding species suited to colonising open ground.  Many of the shade-bearing species including the all spruces, firs and maples are absent and this has important ecological and commercial consequences.  Whereas a mature native Scots pine forest in Norway gradually changes through natural succession towards Norway spruce which grows freely under the canopy of the pine, such a process could not occur in Scotland because the spruce was not present.  Since pine seedlings do not thrive in shadow, Scottish native pine woods tend back towards a more open structure and must await a disturbance, perhaps through fire or storm to open up the canopy, before pine regeneration can again succeed.  Open ground species, such as heather, remain and the ecological transition from open heath to forest is incomplete.  The potential for continuous timber production from such ‘natural’ forests is severely restricted and the chain of forest husbandry is more easily broken as a result.

Scottish pine forest is a western outlier of the great boreal coniferous forest biome that extends right across Eurasia and beyond, in broadly similar character, across northern North America.  Most species typical of the Caledonian pine community including juniper, blaeberry, heather, twinflower, wood ant, crossbill, pine marten etc. are found widely throughout the Eurasian boreal zone.  However, unlike some of the core areas in Scandinavia and Russia where several boreal conifer tree species can occur together, Scottish pine forest, being based on only one major, light-demanding tree species, is inherently vulnerable to disturbance.  If the pines cannot grow, for whatever reason, there are only native plant species available (such as heather) to revert towards open heath as a form of ‘sub tundra’.  This reversion process has occurred widely in Caledonian pinewoods in Scotland and lack of conifer species diversity goes some way towards explaining the difference in extent between Scottish and continental conifer forest comparators such as southern Norway.

A similar pattern can also be discerned in the native broadleaf forests, especially the Atlantic oak forests of the western coasts, where the major species, sessile oak, although capable of regenerating amongst birch, is still relatively light demanding and does not easily regenerate under a developed tree canopy.  Although the Atlantic oak forest community has slightly greater diversity than the pine wood community and may be colonised by other broadleaves such as ash and rowan, it is a species growing close to the edge of its natural range.  In the absence of other species such as sycamore that are better adapted to coastal climates, the woodland habitat is vulnerable to disturbance and reversion to open ground.  The native Scottish broadleaf forests lack the shade-bearing beech, maple and sycamore that might form climax communities in continental Europe and, again, the native forest is more easily displaced or removed as a result.  As with the native pinewood, we now find a very dispersed and relict distribution of Atlantic oak woods in Scotland.

2.1.4 Weakened resilience

It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that differences in the extent of forest cover between the British Isles generally and Scotland in particular on the one hand, and continental European comparators on the other hand, can largely be attributed to human interventions which have radically altered the ecological baseline with a consequent loss of forest viability because natural regeneration has been suppressed.  This, coupled with inherent weakness in the diversity of the native woodland species base caused by long term climate change, has created a lack of resilience and a reduced niche specialisation in Scottish forest structure because many of the key shade-bearing and coniferous tree species are absent.  This has made sustainable timber production much more difficult and means that the culture of forest husbandry in Scotland has been based on a more unreliable resource and has largely been lost as a result.

2.2 Recent history: Arresting the decline

When the Forestry Commission was created in 1919 there was a very clear sense of national priority.  Britain had nearly run out of timber during the ‘Great War’ and the restoration of a national timber resource was a key priority.

 “Prime Minister David Lloyd George admitted that it had been ‘a close run thing’ and Britain had been closer to losing the First World War through lack of timber than lack of food.” [14] 

Given the scale of the problem and the lack of an indigenous forest industry, The Forestry Commission set about its task from first principles, seeking out areas that would grow timber as efficiently as possible.  The focus was on faster-growing conifer species which might be able to thrive on poorer upland soils where most land was available.  Norway spruce and silver fir from continental Europe, conifers from east Asia including the Japanese larch, and many species from North America were tried.  Douglas fir, western hemlock, lodgepole pine, western red cedar and of course Sitka spruce were amongst those selected, with Sitka spruce now the stand-out tree in terms of overall suitability to most Scottish upland conditions.  Today, it forms over 58% of the total area of all conifers in Scottish forests[15] and it is the mainstay of the Scottish forest economy.  (It is worth reflecting that nearly all this current timber harvest comes from first and second rotation fellings from plantation forests that are less than 100 years old – and that is less than the lifetime of a single Sitka spruce tree in its native range.[16] )

It is well known that the rather single-minded pursuit of timber production from these new UK forests ran into problems in the latter half of the 20th century.  As environmental awareness developed in the 1960s and 70s, the value of nature and natural environments was re-assessed and dense, even-aged, monoculture plantations of imported spruce trees were increasingly seen as an unacceptable and un-natural intrusion into the upland landscape. [17]  Gathering public opposition and political pressure led famously to changes in the taxation of forestry in Nigel Lawson’s 1988 budget. [18]  The result was a dramatic decline in new planting.

The removal of the tax incentives for plantation forestry in 1988 also coincided with an increased focus on the environmental problems of upland forestry.   A series of Forestry Commission Guidelines were produced: to control the run-off from forest drains and protect watercourses; to permit greater forest nature conservation; to require more consideration of landscape issues and to allow for greater public use of forests.  The conversion of remnant broadleaved woodland through ‘under-planting’ with conifers ceased and the biodiversity value of woodlands gained increased recognition.  Historic sites also gained recognition and some protection.  The new landscape design guidelines, based on work by Sylvia Crowe, [19] were designed to avoid or minimise the blanketing effect of plantation conifers growing up in dense geometric shapes, often appearing to have been dropped on to the landscape in a quite arbitrary way.  Such new planting as has occurred, post 1988, has been informed by all these various guidelines and grant aid is now controlled by them, given legal force through the UK Forestry Standard. [20]  After quite a long gap, there has also been a recovery in the amount of new planting in more recent years.

These changes have also been accompanied by much improved recognition of all the other potential benefits that forests can bring, including the wildlife they can support, the soils they can conserve and the flood control and water filtration that ‘well designed’ forests can provide.  Forests are not as sensitive to disturbance by walkers as crops or livestock fields and many forests now have a major role as locations for all kinds of outdoor recreation.  When well designed with diversity of species and structure, forests can enhance the beauty of the landscape and attract visitors, thereby aiding local tourism.  Most of all, as concerns about climate change and CO2 emissions become a major priority, forests can provide one of the simplest and most practical ways of locking up carbon.

Today, the need for increasing the Scottish forest resource is again considered a priority and the objectives are set out afresh in Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029.  On the threshold of such a major proposed land use change, it seems a good time to reflect upon what kind of forests will answer these various aspirations of society and to consider what the current planting models are able to offer.   

3 Issues with Current Forestry Practice

Based on current Forestry Commission Scotland statistics, there are some 872 thousand hectares of predominantly coniferous stocked woodland in Scotland with a further 297 thousand hectares of broadleaves, mostly birch.[21]  For both categories, the age class is predominantly less than 80 years old.  These woodlands are largely based on two main planting models: ‘productive’ woodlands and ‘environmental’, predominantly native, woodlands.  The basic characteristics, benefits and limitations of each are considered below.

3.1 ‘Productive conifer’ model based on UK Forestry Standard (Soft or modified plantation model)

Productive woodlands in Scotland are mostly based on conifer species.  A typical woodland creation scheme in upland Scotland today might consist of large areas of conifers, dominated by Sitka spruce, shaped to landform to avoid hard, straight-line boundaries, with some ‘environmental’ planting of native broadleaves along watercourses, using species such as downy birch, willow and rowan, making up around 10% of planting area as required by the UK Forestry Standard.  The whole plantation is usually fenced to protect the young trees from deer and livestock.  Ground preparation usually includes some form of ploughing, mounding or scarification along with a drainage system that must comply with modern guidelines (that forbid direct connection to watercourses for example).  Some basic tracks are laid with a view to future timber extraction by road but little more is required in the way of infrastructure.  Once the crop trees have grown beyond head height in around five years, the plantation can largely be left to its own devices for perhaps 20 years.  There is usually limited consideration of the environmental benefits of the ‘crop’ planting (although there are some) and equally, little or no expectation is given to any future timber harvest from the native broadleaves, which are simply regarded as an environmental cost associated with obtaining grant approval.

As it develops, the conifer crop will be ‘clear felled’ at between 35 and 50 years of age and then replanted as part of a continuing cycle with the native broadleaves left largely to their own devices.  After a few years, the deer fencing around most plantations is breached and roe deer and perhaps also sika and red deer colonise the new forest.  This means that within a few years grazing pressure returns and restricts any natural colonisation by seedling trees that might occur if any mature seed-bearing trees are present.  (Quite often, the only species that does regenerate successfully is Sitka spruce, partly because spruce seed is being produced by the crop but also because Sitka seedlings are much more prickly and less palatable than most other tree species.)  Restocking is done by further planting and this may involve new fencing work, within the wider forest, to keep deer off long enough for the re-stocking to establish.  This is particularly so if the re-stock is to be based on alternative species such as Douglas fir which are more palatable and might otherwise be eaten. 

These ‘productive’ forests will continue to evolve as a land use over the second, third and succeeding harvests.  Felling patterns are likely to change and diversify in response to differential growth, windblow and commercial pressures so that the monocultural character of any large expanse of even-aged trees from the original planting will, increasingly, be broken up.  These patterns are recorded and managed through Long Term Forest Plans which need to be approved by the forestry regulator.

Principal tree species in GB by stocked area: conifers[22]
Source: National Forest Inventory: 50-year forecast of softwood availability (Forestry Commission, April 2014).

1. Stocked area only: excludes felled areas and (for private sector land) open space.
2. Areas at 31 March 2012.

3.2 Issues with the ‘Productive’ Model

The productive woodland model based on an ‘amended or ‘soft edged’ plantation is typical of current practice in Scotland.  It is a distinct improvement on the hard, rectangular ‘blanket forestry’ plantations of the mid 20th century and adherence to the UK Forestry Standard gives the re-assurance that the most significant errors of the past should be avoided.  However, as the second and subsequent generations of trees are re-established after harvesting, there are significant re-stocking costs including the planting stock, the ground preparation and, often, further fencing and tree tubes which, unless actively maintained, will cease to be effective in only a few years.  Also, forest plans are very prescriptive.  Although planting selections are becoming increasingly sophisticated, artificial planting to a pre-set plan can only ever approximate to the expected variations in ground conditions and microclimate.  This means that forest diversity and composition remain relatively monotypic, especially with the industry preference for only one major crop species.

Because the deer population in plantations is often inadequately controlled, there is also a risk that the riparian broadleaves, which are such an important element for the landscape and biodiversity of these upland forests, will fail to flourish and give the intended long-term framework and counterpoint to the evergreen crop trees.  The continuing browsing pressure restricts natural species diversification and the development of a woodland ground flora, and the result is then large expanses dominated by the crop species – usually Sitka spruce – effectively, a continuing monoculture.  This outcome carries the risk of future adverse public reaction as expectations of a more diverse, ‘multi-benefit’ forest are not fully realised. 

There is also a further critical risk that, at some future point, Sitka spruce is affected by a serious pest or pathogen, in which case the viability of the whole Scottish forest industry could be threatened because it relies so heavily on only one species. 

3.3 ‘Native Woodland’ Model

A typical environmental planting will be based, usually exclusively, on native species trees in defined communities as proposed by Rodwell and Paterson[23].  The objective is to create a facsimile of an ‘original native’ woodland by deliberately planting naturalistic patterns and by using only the species considered relevant to the site as determined by its soil characteristics (i.e. the objective is to re-create the type of species composition that might have been expected had human disturbance not taken the original wildwood away).  This model of planting is therefore a form of ecological restoration. 


3.4 Issues with the ‘Native Woodland’ Model

Whilst this type of woodland has undoubtedly increased the resource of native species trees from a generally very low level (in the Scottish Borders, less than 0.26% of the total land area[24]), there are some significant limitations to the approach.  Firstly, the planting is usually carried out as part of a grant aided scheme over a relatively short period of time.  This means that the trees are all the same age and the age class distribution is very narrow and little different from many commercial plantations.  Secondly, the planting is normally protected by a combination of fencing and individual tree tubes so that these relatively palatable young trees are not eaten by deer or other herbivores such as voles, hares, rabbits or, in places, feral sheep.  The location of the trees is pre-determined by specified stocking densities and, at best, can only approximate to the patterns of distribution that would have occurred naturally.  Thirdly, the shrub and ground flora vegetation such as honeysuckle and blaeberry that might have occurred in the original native community is normally absent because it is not grant-aidable and the habitat is therefore incomplete (unless of course, some species are still present on the site and able to re-colonise).  Also, once any protective fencing is taken down or breached, any natural woodland ground storey that may occur can be destroyed if grazing pressure is still too high.

Another important consideration is the reinstatement of the whole sub soil community that forms a key element of true native woodland including both the mycorrhizal dependencies that enable trees of all age classes and sizes to flourish and also the whole range of fungi and invertebrates responsible for wood decay.  Whilst these modern ‘native’ plantings are a crucial supplement to a very depleted native woodland resource, they are only ‘even aged’ plantations composed of native species – unless the site is actively maintained over time to enable natural regeneration to occur and to re-establish the missing shrub, ground and soil flora and fauna.  (The often substantial distances between woodland sources of appropriate propagules for re-colonising is also a serious problem indicating a need for more-connected woodlands.)  Also, very few of these new native woodlands are likely to produce any timber harvest and, although their value in terms of various environmental considerations may be relatively high, they are generally not contributing to the rural economy nor to the downstream processing industry and commerce in a direct way.  The amount of land that can be devoted to this form of land use is therefore open to challenge on the grounds that it is ‘not paying its way’.

3.5 General planting issues

Tree tubes are commonly used to protect broadleaf trees and sometimes conifers,  both in native-type planting schemes and to provide the minimum broadleaf element in productive woodland creation schemes to comply with the UK Forestry Standard.  They provide important benefits by protecting against browsing and also make tree identification and weeding easier, all benefiting establishment.  However, they add significantly to the expense of broadleaf planting and the need to encase young trees in plastic to enable them to grow above the browse level does highlight the hostile conditions that young trees have to contend with.  Tree tubes can restrict stem development, sometimes leading to top heavy, unstable growth that eventually causes the young tree to collapse.  There is a further issue with tree tubes and other plastic-based materials like spiral guards and vole guards.  They do not readily break down and persist long after their usefulness is over, unless actively collected up and disposed of.  Left in situ, as many are, they pollute the environment with plastic litter that can shatter into smaller pieces, potentially entering watercourses and remaining as an unsightly nuisance. 

A further downside of all planting schemes is that they carry some degree of risk of importing pests and diseases, particularly if the planting stock has been imported.  This is thought to have contributed to the spread of Chalara dieback in European ash.  Woodland re-stocking by natural regeneration is inherently safer in this respect.


3.6 Other Models

There are of course, many variations on these two models to try to balance economic and environmental objectives.  Minimum proportions of other conifers are now required as part of the ‘productive model’ through UK Forestry Standard.  There are also grants for productive broadleaves and there is encouragement for natural regeneration.  Nevertheless, the great majority of woodland creation schemes in Scotland are based primarily on either a productive or environmental objective and use tree planting rather than natural regeneration.

3.7 Risks of continuing with the present approach

In a country that has been so heavily deforested over thousands of years, the planting of bare ground through plantations is often the most effective way of ‘kick starting’ the restoration of some form of tree cover.  However, both the productive and native models only deliver part of what a forest can be and neither is truly sustainable because they both rely on repeated inputs, through re-planting, to ensure long term survival.  They are also frequently managed separately from other forms of land use such as agriculture, sporting estates and conservation ownership, leading to an overall land pattern that is highly fragmented with the boundaries maintained by fences.  Rural Scotland is largely characterised by fences and the overall pattern of land use and habitat distribution is broken up as a result, leading to isolation of species and a lack of connectivity.

There are significant risks for the future.  In the case of the ‘productive’ model, there remains a risk of a public backlash if too much ground is given over too quickly to single-species conifer plantation forestry, raising a resurgence of fears over landscape and environmental impacts.  There is also a risk of potentially catastrophic impact should a further serious pest or pathogen become established in the main production species (e.g. the recent infections of Phytopthera in larch[25]).

In the case of the ‘native’ model, the risk is that, if significantly extended, it may be seen as taking too much land out of production and therefore as a loss to the rural economy.  Unless native woodlands can provide harvestable benefits and employment they are likely to remain largely restricted to land that is inaccessible or unusable for other purposes. 

3.8 Two Schools of Forestry: Closing the gap

Although the gap may be closing, the division of modern Scottish forestry between the ‘productive’ and ‘native’ models comes with associated differences in culture and outlook.  Because so much of the productive forest is made up of ‘non-native’ species, there has been a tendency to consider such forests purely as a crop to be grown and harvested in as short a time as possible.  There are opportunities to allow some trees to become mature and grow old, forming new habitats and there are sufficient areas of awkward and inaccessible ground in many plantation forests to allow this to happen, as part of the approved forest plans.  However, such areas are often neglected and are rarely granted any particular conservation status unless they happen to be colonised by a ‘valued’ species such as red squirrel or goshawk. 

In the ‘native’ plantations, any growth by ‘non-native’ species, such as regeneration of spruce or larch, is often regarded as an unwanted intrusion by an ‘alien’ species.  Wherever practical such intruders are often removed.  Antipathy towards ‘non-native’ species is widespread.  It has become a major issue for biodiversity world wide, so much so that some biologists now regard colonising introduced species as one of the principal threats to future biodiversity.  A new branch of science has sprung up called ‘invasion biology’ in response.  The attitude to ‘non-natives’ is often negative in tone[26] and, at its most extreme, has some uncomfortable links with xenophobia.  Such attitudes are being challenged.[27] [28]  So long as native species are regarded as ‘good’ and non-natives as ‘bad’, the inevitable consequence will be to encourage ‘control’ of the non-natives, whether justified or not.  As natural processes do not recognise these ‘man made’ concepts, there is a serious risk of human beings declaring an unwinnable war on a large part of the natural world which is considered to be ‘in the wrong place’.  Unfortunately, for Scottish forestry, this issue is a particular problem because, for reasons already discussed, so much of the productive industry here is based on non-native species of trees that, for many, are still classed as ‘bad’ or at least unwelcome outside the plantation fence.  The native versus alien bias colours attitudes and therefore limits the progress that can be made towards a more integrated forest culture.  It imposes a kind of species apartheid and the prospects for a fully integrated Scottish forestry will remain compromised until such attitudes are amended.

3.9 Reconsidering ‘Native’ versus ‘Exotic’

Conifer trees such as Norway spruce, silver fir and possibly European larch are part of the same wider ecological plant community as our existing UK native species.  They used to grow in the British Isles in the past but were, as far as we know, extirpated by glaciation and were or are (as yet) unable to re-colonise.  The UK native tree species are not isolated endemics specific to our islands but simply parts of the wider continental ecosystem.  Even the North American conifers, including Sitka spruce, belong to plant communities that are not dissimilar to the plant communities of north west Europe.  The flora of western Canada is much more extensive and diverse as compared to Scotland.[29]  Yet even the western Canadian flora, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Scotland in terms of species depletion by glaciations, has, nevertheless, many species in common between these widely separated regions, such as juniper (Juniperus communis), twinflower (Linnea borealis), crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and Vaccinium species, together with numerous common genera including Pinus, Betula, Sorbus, Populus and Alnus. These and many more are present at both locations suggesting a commonality of origin.

If a long-term geological or biological perspective is taken rather than a human one, there is nothing particularly special about the combination of species that managed to recolonise the British Isles after the most recent glaciation.  The 10,000 years or so since then is actually quite a short time.  The principal common tree species we have in Britain today have been around for several million years.  Various oak species, for instance, have been identified from the fossil record from between 20 and 30 million years ago.[30]  During most of that time, they have lived as part of much more diverse Tertiary and Quarternary forest ecosystems that also included a much wider range of tree and shrub species, as well as various large mammals including forms of elephant, rhinoceros, aurochs, elk, bison, various species of deer, wild boar, lion, hyena, wolf and bear.  It really makes little sense to take the end of the last glaciation as the ecological baseline for all UK natives when we are dealing with species of trees that have been evolving and changing their distribution over far longer timeframes and which have evolved as members of much older and more complex ecological communities that even pre-date the start of the Quarternary ice ages some 2.5 million years ago.[31] 

3.10 Future Natural

If a longer timeframe is taken that allows for tree migration following climate change, the concept of re-assimilating some of the well-established, ‘non-native’, European tree species that used to grow here (e.g. Norway spruce, beech and sycamore) and some others that are quite closely related (e.g. North American conifers), becomes much less threatening.  This perspective allows the possibility for new forest communities with a much wider range of species (probably closer to the actual forest communities of 2-3 million years ago before the Pleistocene Ice Ages) and creates great potential for the future.  It becomes possible to create new ecosystems based on the species that are present now and which would establish if allowed to do so – in other words, what George Peterkin has described as ‘future natural’.  At Section 14.6 of his book ‘Natural Woodland’, Peterkin describes future natural with the opening sentence:

The forests which would develop if people vacated Britain would differ substantially from those which might be present if people had never arrived.[32] 

Because of the presence of the productive conifers as ready seed sources in many locations, ‘future natural’ woodland will usually include the species that foresters want to grow for timber production, such as Norway and Sitka spruce, but, because the developing trees are the result of regeneration that will also generally include recognised natives such as birch, the result will be variable mixed stands of trees that are productive but also have the potential, in time, to provide all the environmental benefits of the conventional native planting model.

A key consideration is that ‘future natural’ also allows an adaptive change to respond to a warming climate.  By encouraging and accepting species that can thrive in current circumstances rather than being tied to the very limited palette of ‘past natural’ species that last established spontaneously several thousand years ago, it is possible to develop forests better suited to the expected climatic conditions for the 21st century and further ahead.  For example, in addition to the light-demanding, post-glacial pioneers that are already present, more shade-bearing species and those currently established slightly further south (and already present here) such as field maple, hornbeam, sycamore and beech can become part of the Scottish forest community (some of these species are likely to have naturally colonised Scotland by the present time if human disturbance had not interfered with tree distribution in the last few millennia) . Amongst the conifers, various firs, spruces and pines can also become members of novel ecosystems.  Such species are, in any case, already being planted in response to the threat of climate change.[33]

3.11 Problems with Future Natural

There is an argument that allowing these ‘new’ species to ‘intrude’ into native woodlands might lead to overall loss of biodiversity because the they do not carry the full range of attendant fungi, invertebrates etc.  Some reductions are, perhaps, inevitable as each species takes its own space in the forest with its own attendant communities or lack thereof.  Over time however, such imbalances are likely to even out as the micro communities adapt to the new circumstances.  There are also contrary situations where ‘non-native’ trees may help to bolster existing woodland communities, e.g. where sycamore fills in the gaps in an ash / elm woodland where both the original co-dominants have been depleted by disease and the communities requiring shade are threatened by loss of canopy cover.

There are also some problem species.  Whilst this paper advocates a generally permissive approach to natural colonisation, it has to be acknowledged that some interventions are likely to remain desirable, for instance where Rhododendron ponticum is taking over woodland.  Although this species was widespread in the Pleistocene period, its native range is now restricted to parts of southern Europe and Asia Minor.[34]  Since its introduction to the British Isles, it has become extremely invasive (perhaps because it lacks any natural pathogens?).  This species also acts as a host plant for Phytopthora ramorum, a serious plant disease. The interaction between these two species is unstable and currently both constitute serious threats meriting action.  Perhaps, over time, biological agents will help to supress the vigour of these species?  In the meantime, direct action can be justified on the basis that it is a form of pest control as opposed to being a doctrinaire opposition to a non-native species per se.  This is in line with the approach advocated by Charles Warren where species are controlled based on their potential to cause harm rather than a general discrimination against non-natives. [35] [36] [37].

3.12 European examples

Many parts of northern Europe practise forestry on a much larger scale than in Scotland and do so in a way that can be both productive and environmentally beneficial as part of an integrated overall pattern of land use related to land capability.  Such forests have often evolved over centuries, usually from original native forest, subject to human pressures but, critically, able to recover from disturbance because there was adequate natural regeneration.  Also, these forests in the European uplands typically contain native conifer species such as Norway spruce and silver fir that grow relatively quickly and provide a valued resource, e.g. for house building.  Because of the much longer periods of forest husbandry in Europe, extraction on a ‘Continuous Cover Forestry’ (CCF) basis is often part of the local culture, particularly on the more sheltered and fertile sites.[38]  Where deer numbers are adequately controlled, harvesting can be much less intrusive with smaller scale felling works by local operators on a regular basis rather than the more extreme disturbance of the large 10 and 20 hectare clear fell operations typical of Scottish forestry.

There is increasing interest in these alternative silvicultural options (known as Alternatives to Clear Fell – ATC – or Continuous Cover Forestry – CCF) in UK forestry, including a CCF group in Scotland –and there are many benefits. [39]  Smaller felling coupes reduce the visual impacts on the landscape.  The forest habitat remains relatively undisturbed – indeed smaller scale felling, that creates clearings, benefits many species by allowing more light to reach the forest floor.  The risks of pollution and flood damage, which can occur after large-scale clear cutting, are also minimised.  From the economic perspective, more-frequent, smaller-scale timber extraction can favour local industries which can use the timber harvest to support local housebuilding and joinery industries, as happens in continental Europe.


That local connection is rarely seen in Scotland, where the forest crop is normally hauled by road to large, relatively distant mills in a few centres.  It is acknowledged that many of the more sophisticated forms of ATC need relatively sheltered sites to work well and that windblow is a major constraint in many Scottish upland sites, especially once a larger felling coupe has been opened up.  In more sheltered sites however, there is no fundamental reason why adapted forms of such forestry cannot be much more widely adopted.  There are some encouraging signs that enlightened foresters are moving in this direction.

4 Proposed Unified Approach based on European Examples

4.1 Regeneration priority

The first priority is that Scottish forestry should become truly sustainable.  This means that the ‘crop trees’ are harvested as part of a sustainable yield provided by trees that are replenished in the normal way: through regeneration from the seed produced by the standing trees.  This principle can apply equally well to the productive conifers as to the native species.  (Indeed, the definition of what constitutes ‘native’ might even be understood to mean naturally regenerated trees – i.e. ‘of the place’ – rather than the current emphasis on native species.)  Once regeneration is secured on a long-term basis, a much wider range of options becomes available to forest managers and the whole character of the forest can change in response to the characteristics of the site (e.g. the option to reduce coupe size and increase harvesting frequency is much easier when the age structure is more varied and there is no need to come in after each felling to carry out costly replanting and fencing).   The precondition is that the herbivore population is kept continuously under control. 

Regeneration is inherently more variable and different species can be expected to mix together in novel combinations responding directly to site factors of soil and climate.  This means that future harvests will have to become more varied and responsive as trees achieve harvesting size at different times leading to less extensive but more regular harvesting (closer to ATC).  Some respacing may be required.  More-regular employment work will result for local harvesters.  This scenario may not appeal to those looking for easily calculated timber yields and some level of planting may also remain beneficial on certain sites, but a transition towards self-regenerating forest does mean that the ‘monolithic’ character of plantation forestry can be broken up whilst still providing a regular and sustainable softwood harvest and rural employment.  It is what is frequently done in continental Europe.  In the long run, the change to a more natural type of ‘production’ forestry should also help to make a more extensive forest cover more acceptable to the wider public, both visually and biologically and that is in the interests of the forest industry which is looking to substantially increase forest area.

4.1.1 A coordinated national approach to herbivore management

The first precondition for any move towards a more natural type of productive forestry on the continental model is to encourage and secure natural regeneration.  This allows natural processes to decide species composition.  There are some real barriers to this process because of the heavy grazing and browsing pressure that is so widespread in Scotland and the various farming and hunting cultures that support it.  However, there are some signs that this unfavourable situation is beginning to change. 

Firstly, extensive livestock grazing in the uplands is in decline.  For example, the number of ewes for breeding has fallen from 3,398,329 in 1982 to 2,618,341 in 2016[40], a reduction of nearly 23% over 34 years.  Many areas of the western Highlands are now free of sheep for the first time in many centuries and there is ample evidence of a natural regeneration of native woodland in some areas as a result.  After centuries of impoverishment through over grazing and the consequent loss of soil nutrients and shelter, the economic basis of upland sheep farming is increasingly weak with a heavy dependence on taxpayer subsidy.  In the current political climate, it seems very unlikely that this can be allowed to continue at the present highly subsidised levels, particularly given the new priority of responding to climate change.  Removal of domestic livestock creates huge opportunities for future land use in the uplands, especially forestry.  Productive forestry, with or without windfarms, looks like the only viable alternative in many areas. 

The removal of stock is not the end of the problem however, because deer grazing is also a key limiting factor on natural forest development almost everywhere in Scotland.  One of the consequences of the loss of a forest culture in most of the UK is that the necessary habit of keeping deer numbers under control has also been lost.  Plantation forestry side-steps the problem by installing fencing, with some limited degree of culling inside the fence, but this is only a temporary solution.  Deer numbers in Scotland are currently at an all-time high, including both red deer in the Highlands and parts of Galloway and roe deer almost everywhere.[41]  Sika and fallow deer are also significant in some locations.  As the extent of forest cover increases, so the number of land owners with an interest in the reduction in deer numbers will also increase.  Many conservation interests are also focussing on the restrictions that deer impose on native plants, especially the remnants of native Caledonian pine wood and the legislation in relation to deer management in Scotland is currently under review.[42] 

Redirected and invigorated hunting effort can provide effective management of deer numbers as shown by the methods practised on the continent (e.g. in France and Germany where the right to hunt also commits the hunter to engage in wildlife management to agreed standards).  To achieve this, Scotland urgently requires a sustained system for deer control, especially in woodlands, rather than the haphazard methods currently employed.  This can also help to provide rural employment.[43]

In the longer term, it is also worth considering the benefit that could be obtained by restoring some of the lost carnivores such as lynx and wolf.  Lynx, in particular, could do sustainable forestry a great service by helping to keep deer numbers, especially roe deer, in check within dense forest.  Where the habitat is suitable for lynx, the potential cost savings that could be realised for forestry need to be part of the equation when proposals for reintroduction are being assessed.  Currently the focus seems to be on the potential environmental benefits versus the economic risks to livestock agriculture without considering and quantifying the potential economic benefits to forestry.

4.2 A wider palette of species

Secondly, the present very high environmental status accorded currently to ‘native’ species of trees needs to be reassessed and set into a wider perspective so that tree species choice can more accurately reflect the actual capabilities of the site in the round, i.e. from both the economic and environmental perspectives and based on the full range of available species.  This means retaining and bolstering the existing remnants of native woodland as core areas, as much for their dependant soil and dead wood communities, fungi and invertebrates as for the trees themselves, but, in the current scenario where forest cover is being expanded, it should also allow for natural colonisation by other more shade bearing species, e.g. spruce and fir in a pine wood, where this forms part of a new process of succession.  On the continent, forests including trees such as beech and silver fir are both beautiful and productive.  Numerous options for diverse species mixes are available in Scotland also, using both the ‘original native’ and ‘introduced’ species and these can be managed on a sustainable basis through natural regeneration to form various ‘future natural’ communities.  Novel forest ecosystems can be encouraged to develop by using the species we know are able to produce timber but grown in a natural rather than a plantation system.  In this way, a ‘native-plus’ type of forestry can move out of the gullies and become a productive and widespread land use in its own right.

4.2.1 Use the full range of valued species in a sustainable way

If the productive forest area is to be increased, there will need to be further tree planting on open land.  A future natural forest can be encouraged by trying to ensure that all the anticipated species for a particular site are included in the planting mix, i.e. all the relevant natives plus the suitable crop species using Ecological Site Classification principles.[44]  This will create seed sources for future regeneration.  For existing forests which are reaching the re-stocking phase, there can be a gradual transition towards future natural by simply encouraging and managing natural regeneration via control of grazing, i.e. by converting towards one of the Continuous Cover systems.  Of necessity this includes not trying to pre-determine exactly what will grow where in highly prescriptive planting plans but responding to actual growth patterns as they occur.  This requires a degree of ‘letting go’ which perhaps runs against the grain of current practice.  In some of the more extreme upland sites, future natural may be predominantly spruce based with an admixture of upland willows and birch.

Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029 outlines a more extensive forest cover that makes an increasing contribution to the economy, particularly in rural areas.  Clearly, such forests need to be productive with harvestable timber as a primary objective.  ‘Future Natural’ forests can fulfil this objective because they can include the species of trees with the highest yield class potential for a given site, i.e. they can include the productive softwood conifers, just grown in a more natural way.

4.3 What it might look like

In forest terms, it is worth considering what such new ecosystems might become in Scotland over time.  On the wetter west coast, tree composition could be much like that found in coastal British Columbia where Sitka spruce and western hemlock grow in mixture with Douglas fir in the warmer, more-fertile areas, grading into Pacific silver fir at higher elevations.  Beech and sycamore which both thrive on the Scottish west coast would also have a role alongside all the existing ‘original’ natives which would continue as members of the new and expanded community.  Given sufficient time and a sheltered location, a ‘temperate rainforest’ including trees of considerable age and stature is possible.

Conditions in the drier east are rather different and here the future native forest composition will vary accordingly.  Based on the species currently present, a ‘boreal’ type forest composed of pine, (both Scots and lodgepole) and both species of larch would grow up amongst the heather and blaeberry on the acid podsol areas currently dominated by heather moorland. Both Norway and Sitka spruce and probably some fir and western hemlock would come through as a second succession.  The eventual forest community is likely to be rather similar to that found in parts of southern Scandinavia and northern Germany where spruce and fir dominate.


In the warmer, drier lowlands and river valleys where brown earth soils predominate, larger species of broadleaves including oak, ash, beech, lime and sycamore might predominate, but even here some of the shade-tolerant conifers such as Douglas and silver fir are likely to occur in the mix along with a wide range of understorey and shrub species such as hornbeam, field maple, hazel, holly, yew and laurel.

Illustrations of other types of ‘new’ ecosystem are already available[45], for example on derelict development sites in our cities where birch, willow, sycamore, cotoneaster and buddleia can spring up after even a few years.  Inevitably, some of the so-called ‘invasive’ weeds would grow up too including rhododendron, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam along with the ‘native invasives’ such as gorse and bracken.  Over the longer term, all these and many other species would compete, adapt and evolve into novel communities far removed from the native communities identified in the National Vegetation Classification[46].

Although it is interesting to speculate on the exact form of the future natural species composition, the real point is that it can and should be allowed to occur and be welcomed as an example of nature taking a new course in the true sense of ‘rewilding’.  By using the full range of both native and introduced species that are adapted to the Scottish climate and soils, a forest community will develop that is closer to the full biological potential of each locality.  There will be more forest with wider diversity and larger tree sizes and more dependant wildlife than compared to the ‘original natural’ (the species which colonised before human interventions).  This is a good thing where we need forests to provide a timber harvest and all the other diverse environmental benefits and where reduction of carbon emissions is a priority too.  These species are already growing here as a direct consequence of current forestry practice.  The real question is not whether to make this happen but whether it is worth trying to stop it!  

4.4 New Land Use Patterns

One perhaps less obvious advantage of adopting a ‘future natural’ approach to forest expansion is that it will also help to resolve current problems with land use balance.  By controlling grazing pressure generally through coordinated herbivore control, thereby allowing natural regeneration to occur opportunistically, forest cover will become the natural default condition, as it is in many parts of Europe, and will spring up spontaneously wherever the land is not being actively farmed and the climate and soils allow.  Ground that is too high will remain open and a natural tree line will form, where climatic stresses dictate, with a ‘krummholz’ or ‘montane scrub’ vegetation developing[47] [48].  (Enrichment planting will be necessary in some places to create adequate seed sources for regeneration: in particular, montane species such as dwarf birch (Betula nana) and some of the montane willows and juniper should be planted in suitable locations, because montane scrub has been almost completely eliminated in Scotland and the natural seed bank is therefore severely limited.)  Ground that is too wet will remain as open bog with an ecotone of stunted forest along the bog edge.  These future natural forests will have irregular natural boundaries that respond to landform rather than the arbitrary fenced off blocks of trees that characterise the present ‘plantation forest’ landscape. 

4.4.1 Future Natural Forestry and Agriculture

A reduction in subsidy dependence should see agriculture re-focus on the more fertile valley floors and ‘in bye’ land where it remains economically viable.  Productive forestry on the future natural model is ready to take its place in the marginal uplands that are vacated.  These will develop on the surrounding slopes and higher ground, grading out to open ‘alpine’ moor on the hill tops above the climatic tree line.  This is precisely the pattern of land use that is present in many of the uplands and mountains of Europe.  It makes sense because each type of land is given over to its optimum use: food production on the most fertile ground, timber production on the steeper, more-constrained ground and nature conservation and recreation on the open land that is unsuitable for production.  If, as seems likely, extensive upland hill sheep farming continues to decline over the next few decades, then natural forest is ready to take its place providing new and valuable resources for people including harvestable timber and associated employment and all the other environmental benefits of forests.  This can only happen, however, if there is a nationwide effort to manage wild herbivores, without which the whole process will stall and the land vacated by agriculture will become relatively unproductive deer range.

A further class of forestry integrated into farmed landscapes also has a role providing timber and shelter.  Due to the more limited extent of these shelter woods, they are likely to continue to be planted.

4.4.2 Future Natural Forestry and Field Sports

Any consideration of land use in Scotland must take account of the very large areas currently devoted to field sports and, in particular, the grouse moors and deer forests that dominate so much of the Highlands and parts of the Southern Uplands.  Field sports and hunting are not restricted to the UK but the character of the shooting activity is unlike that found elsewhere.  As previously noted, the original native forest in the British Isles lacks several key tree species and this has allowed forest land to revert, relatively easily, to an un-wooded state which is normally described as moorland or heath.  Such land now exceeds forest area significantly.  Approximately 63% of Scotland’s land area is classed as ‘upland’ or ‘montane’ as compared to approximately 18% ‘forest’[49] and the extent of these large moorland areas helps to explain the limited coverage of forest in the UK.  (Even some of the montane areas would develop a dwarf ‘montane scrub’ that has almost been eliminated from the Scottish mountains.) 

Bare, open moorland is inherently unproductive and the loss of forest cover and the associated degradation of soil fertility over many centuries that has created these areas has also contributed to long term rural depopulation including specific periods such as the Highland clearances.  (The change from traditional cattle to grazing by sheep in the uplands has simply accelerated the decline in fertility as each harvest of livestock removes nutrients that are not replaced.)  This vacated ‘empty’ land has generally fallen into the hands of a few large land owners and they have taken to using otherwise useless ground to hunt the red deer and grouse that live there.  This received a 19th century royal endorsement when Queen Victoria began to take her holidays in Balmoral and, as a result, created an entire ‘sporting estate’ sub culture which persists today and which currently occupies a very large area of the Highlands.  

To maximise the desired game species, these estates employ gamekeepers to eliminate predators such as fox, weasel and stoat and competing species which are also intermediate hosts of parasites, such as hares.  They burn heather in strips to keep it short and create a mosaic of different heights that benefits the number of potential grouse territories but eliminates any regenerating trees and further reduces soil fertility in the process.  They also put down medicated grit so that the red grouse are maintained at artificially high numbers.  In the Victorian period gamekeepers took a terrible toll of wildlife that was considered ‘vermin’.  Today, at least the birds of prey enjoy some legal protection but sporting estates still exert a strong negative pressure on the small carnivore elements of the native wildlife.  Most of this activity is on land that could and, arguably should, carry a forest cover.

Devoting such large areas of land purely to the limited harvest of selected wildlife in the interests of very exclusive recreation is questionable and currently a matter of debate.  No doubt these activities will continue as long as they remain legal and retain the support of wealthy ‘clients’.  However, field sports do not need to cease if land is devoted, instead, to forestry but the nature of the activity does need to change, i.e. to woodland stalking.  This type of hunting is a mainstay of forest management on the continent where shooting from high seats on the edges of forest clearings is largely how the desired herbivore management is achieved.  For Scotland to move towards ‘ecological forestry’ as on the continent, a similar change in the hunting culture is needed here too, with Glen Feshie standing as a current example of the transformation that can be achieved.


A related aspect is the problem of deer moving across property boundaries.  Wild deer do not belong to anyone but, within the law, can be taken by land owners where they occur on their own land.  Some estates feed deer in winter and do not cull heavily in order to obtain the largest number of stags which they can then sell to guests as ‘sporting trophies’.  However, these deer can wander freely onto adjoining ground where they may not be wanted and where they can damage or prevent forest regeneration.  The population of red deer has risen by about 75-80% since the 1960s.[50]  In the present circumstances, it is the forest owner that has to take on the costs of protective fencing in order to start young trees.  This can be seen as an unreasonable burden on the forest owner whose land is being invaded due to a neighbour’s management policy.  Equally, if the forest owner heavily culls the intruding deer, this can lead to complaints from the deer stalking estate. 

A further consideration is that ”keeping deer numbers too high can lead to catastrophic mortality in hard winters with large numbers of animals enduring a slow and painful death through starvation and hypothermia.  This hidden cruelty would not occur if the numbers of deer were kept in harmony with their habitat.”[51]  This is a significant animal welfare issue.

In the interests of fairness and to enable national targets for forest growth and expansion to be met, deer cull targets need to be set nationally and adjusted to local circumstances as required.  This needs to be controlled and enforced through revised legislation so that over-stocking is prevented.  This matter is of the greatest importance as it affects the whole future of land use change and management in Scotland and is, indeed, a precondition for the type of forest advocated by this paper.

4.4.3 Future Natural Forestry and Conservation

There is currently a problem associated with much of the energy and direction of nature conservation in the UK.  There were a variety of grazing and browsing species before human influences became dominant some 4-5,000 years ago [52] and some grazing pressure is an integral part of forest dynamics.  Nevertheless, pollen evidence indicates that, before human disturbance became dominant, most of the British Isles, from the coast to the hill tops, supported some kind of forest cover, if montane scrub, fen woodland etc are included, as well as various swamp, marsh and peat bog habitats and riparian and coastal zones.  Only a tiny fraction of that original habitat remains.   Today, in contrast, there are numerous sites all over the British Isles where patches of heavily modified secondary habitat including ‘semi natural’ grassland, water meadow, heathland, ‘wood pasture’ and larger areas of open moorland are being ‘conserved’ in their current grazed condition, because they contain some species of interest.  These are not truly natural habitats but are secondary communities that were formed by human disturbance.  They are generally much more heavily and continuously grazed than would occur naturally where herbivores are subject to predation.  In the interests of diversity and of retaining some examples of interesting habitats and species, there is a place for this approach but, as a major strategy for the future of large sections of the country, the concept is deeply flawed.  Other options based on controlled herbivore pressures and a reinstated ecology with a more ‘three dimensional’ woodland habitat could, in time, become much richer in species.

Sometimes these sites are also designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and this may dictate a more conservative approach, sometimes, ironically, protecting the status quo with subsidised grazing.  However, change is possible even in SSSIs.

“SSSIs are not ‘no go areas’.  They were set up to permit discussion of development which might affect the stated scientific interest.  There are large areas of SSSI in the uplands which could-and possibly should-be developed under the modern forestry mode proposed here.”[53]

This conservation paradox is described by George Monbiot in his book ‘Feral’ as Shifting Baseline Syndrome[54], where people ascribe value to the landscapes of their childhood or their parents because that is as far back as can be remembered.  Through the influence of Monbiot and others, there is now fresh interest in a different approach best summed up as ‘rewilding’.  This proposes a more ‘nature focussed’ approach, restoring lost ecological relationships.  This may include bringing back missing predators, so that ecosystems can function as they did before human disturbance transformed them into various ‘agricultural’ landscapes.  The restoration of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US in 1995[55] after an absence of some 70 years has very clearly demonstrated the profound effects that a returned predator species can have in encouraging new growth and habitat improvement that has benefitted many other species.  Rewilding brings the opportunity for trees to seed and grow under the dynamic conditions in which they evolved over many thousands of years.  However, it is unlikely that people in Scotland are ready for the return of the wolf and this therefore imposes a much greater onus on directed hunting to achieve the desired reduction in grazing pressure. 

Another issue for rewilding is that processes do not move backwards.  New species are now present almost everywhere and the outcome of ‘rewilding’ today will not see a reversion to a ‘pristine’ post-glacial condition but the creation of new ecosystems responding to current conditions: i.e. some form of ‘future natural’.[56]

Forestry does offer an economically viable alternative in many parts of the uplands and the naturally regenerated ‘future natural forest’ on the European model is largely compatible with the philosophy of rewilding by allowing natural processes to provide desired outcomes with only minimal management interventions from the harvesting of timber and venison and other wild harvest products such as berries and fungi.

4.4.4 Future Natural Forestry and the Landscapes of Scotland

There is no doubt that a changed forest culture, as proposed, will have a profound long-term effect on the landscapes of Scotland.  Converting to a more natural growth of forest will reduce or eliminate the sharp boundaries typical of the plantation systems and create more diverse forests with uneven boundaries, responding to landform and soil conditions in the larger scale uplands and the more intimate lowland and valley landscapes.  Although perceptions of beauty and scenic value differ, natural-looking landscapes are increasingly valued in a world of increasing human control and domestication.  The transition can perhaps be most easily realised in the existing production forests where restocking, based on natural regeneration and selective thinning, will phase out the blocky, monolithic character of the original plantation.  Opportunities for afforestation of open land will occur wherever the reduction of grazing allows, producing a gradual transformation as tree cover grows up in a patchy and discontinuous natural way.  Such changes are already taking place in the wider Scottish landscape, for instance at Glen Feshie.

What is perhaps more problematic is where open landscapes are highly valued.  Our uplands are often associated with wildness, naturalness and a sense of freedom.  Whether or not such qualities are synonymous with openness rather depends upon the understanding of the viewer.  Forested landscapes can be ‘wild’ too.  When people recognise that many of the open upland landscapes of the British Isles are the result of human intervention and often have limited conservation value, perceptions can change. 

It is unwise to try to specify what the ideal character of a landscape should be when public perceptions vary between each other and over time.  People often accept the landscapes that they are familiar with but can react adversely to sudden transformations e.g. when a wind farm is constructed or a new plantation is created.  Future natural forestry, based on the gradual processes of natural regeneration (and creating a habitat for wildlife) should be much easier for people to accept and value as compared to the current plantation systems.  Nevertheless, there will be places where, perhaps for historical reasons, the open, grazed character of a particular location should be retained.  There is no need for all future landscapes to follow the same prescriptions everywhere.

4.4.5 Future Natural Forestry and Climate Change

Perhaps the key incentive to increase the extent of forest cover in Scotland and, indeed, everywhere, is the need to respond to the threat of potentially catastrophic climate change.  It is well recognised that human activity, particularly through the mining of fossil fuels and the removal of forests on a global scale, has added substantially to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  Along with the conservation of peatlands, one of the most efficient ways to reverse this trend is to replace missing forest, thereby tying up or sequestering CO2 back into the vegetation cover, or in retention as part of widespread timber use in building construction.  Both natural and productive forests can do this so long as the productive forests, when felled, are replaced.  However, forests are more than a stand of trees and there is carbon tied up in the whole biomass, including the shrub and groundcover layers and in the soil humus and, particularly, in the dead wood that accumulates in natural forests.  By controlling grazing pressure, natural forestry will be able to fix more CO2 than an equivalent area of plantation forest that contains large numbers of deer that suppress the ground vegetation.  Since climate change is now a pressing concern, future natural forestry on the European model looks like the best possible response as a land use option because, by developing a much greater biomass of vegetation, it will help to lock up the maximum amount of carbon.

5 Conclusion

Forestry in Scotland is a key element of the rural economy – all the more so as upland farming is in decline and relies heavily on subsidies.  More forestry is an effective response to concerns about climate change and the need to control carbon emissions and, if not poorly designed, trees and woodlands are also a key habitat for wildlife and make very important contributions to soil and water quality, to erosion control and to the beauty and recreational value of the wider landscape.  The decision by the Scottish government to encourage more woodland creation is well founded. 

The underlying reasons for the severe historical decline in woodland cover in Scotland over thousands of years include human influences, such as clearance for agriculture and the introduction of livestock and the control and eventual extermination of large predators such as wolves.  This contributes, today, to a burgeoning deer population, which makes it very difficult for forests and woodlands to propagate themselves naturally as they still do in many parts of mainland Europe.  This has led to the current expectation that new woodlands always have to be planted and protected by fencing in order to survive.  

However, another cause of the decline is the inherent lack of diversity amongst the quite small number of tree species that managed to recolonise the British Isles, and particularly the uplands, after the last Ice Age – a far smaller number of species than can actually thrive and grow here and lacking many of the most important productive and shade bearing tree species.  The combination of these influences has profoundly weakened the resilience and productivity of native woodland ecosystems which has in turn contributed to the loss of a tradition of forest husbandry, including effective herbivore control, such as can still be found in many parts of continental Europe.

The existing methods of creating new woodlands by planting open ground are likely to continue for the foreseeable future but the plantation system, whether for ‘productive’ or ‘native’ type woodlands, has significant limitations both in terms of the level of management interventions required and the monocultural character of the woodlands created.  To become truly sustainable, the future approach to forestry needs to combine the economic and environmental objectives, and be based largely on natural regeneration, if Scotland is to achieve the mature, diverse forests and the forest culture that is found in continental Europe.  This is achievable but will require changes in attitude and approach by all the rural interests including commercial foresters and farmers and the regulators and by the environmental interests that perhaps still regard productive forestry with suspicion.  Changes to the field sports culture are needed too because the ongoing control of grazing and browsing animals is critical.  A coordinated national approach to herbivore management, backed by legislative changes, is required, probably along similar lines to the system in Germany where rights to hunt are coupled with responsibilities to achieve agreed targets.

The choice of objectives for forestry that are set out now will affect land cover in Scotland for many years ahead and good choices should be based on a willingness to re-examine current practice.  The most successful and lasting future forests will both pay their way and benefit the environment.  By giving priority, wherever possible, to woodland creation based on natural regeneration and by accepting all the existing UK tree species, both native and introduced, as legitimate elements in the modern landscape, a better variety of diverse future forests can be created that will serve all the expectations and objectives of society.


Abstract of Scottish Agricultural Statistics 1982 to 2016.

Affouage definition:

Armstrong H. & Forest Policy Group (2015) ‘The Benefits of Woodland: Unlocking the Potential of the Scottish Uplands’

Armstrong H. & Forest Policy Group (2015) ‘The Benefits of Woodland: Unlocking the Potential of the Scottish Uplands, Part II Supporting Evidence, page 1

Ashmole M. & P. (2009), ‘The Carrifran Wildwood Story’

Badenoch C. personal communication (pages 4 & 25)

Bagley, M. (2014), ‘Quarternary Period: Climate, Animals & Other Facts’

BBC Legacies: Up to 25000 sheep attributed to Melrose Abbey alone BBC – Legacies – Immigration and Emigration – Scotland – Borders – David I and the impact of the Norman Conquest – Article Page 2

Confor (2014) ‘Eskdalemuir: A comparison of forestry and hill farming; productivity and economic impact’

Continuous Cover Forestry Group:

Crone A., “Wood Use in the Medieval Scottish Burgh: Timber Supply and Building Design”, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee.

‘Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government by Scottish Natural Heritage’ (2016)

Duncan P. personal communication (page 27)

‘An Ecological Site Classification for Forestry in Great Britain’ (2001) Forestry Commission Bulletin 124

‘The European Union and Forests’ factsheet

Edwards, C. and Taylor, S. L. (2008). ‘A survey and appraisal of Rhododendron invasion in Argyll and Bute.’   Forest Research.

Edwards T. & Kenyon W. (2013) “Wild Deer in Scotland”, SPICe Briefing for Scottish Parliament

Elliot M., ‘Phytopthera ramorum and P. kernoviae; the most serious threat yet to the UK’s native forests and historic gardens.’

Erfmeir A., Bruelheide H. (2003) “Comparison of native and invasive Rhododendron ponticum populations: Growth, reproduction and morphology under field conditions.”

Forest Policy Group (2016) ‘A brief history of ‘the deer problem’ in Scotland’

Forestry Commission 69th Annual Report and Accounts 1988-1989, page 10

Forestry Statistics (2017), The Forestry Commission

Forestry Statistics 2018, Table 1.2 Woodland Area in the United Kingdom

Forestry Statistics 2018, Tables 1.6 and 1.7

Freeing the Landscape: Procedings of the Knepp Vera Conference (2017)

German Forestry, Forest and Game

Gibbard P. ‘How Britain Became an Island’

Hall, J.E., Kirby,K.J., Whitbread, A.M. (revised 2004) ‘National Vegetation Classification Field Guide to Woodland’

History of Wolves in Yellowstone (2017) Wikipedia

Jensen R. (2011), ‘The Origin of Oaks’

Kinloch B. B., Westfall R. D., Forrest G. I. (1986) ‘Caledonian Scots Pine: Origins and Genetic Structure’


Lucas O. (1991), ‘The Design of Forest Landscapes’

Mitchell A. (1974) Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, preface.

Mitchell A. (1974) ‘Trees of Britain and Northern Europe’, pp29, 30 The natural distribution of tree species

Monbiot G. (2013) ‘Feral’, pp69, Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Montane Scrub, SNH

Pearce F. (2015), ‘The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation’

Peterken G. (1996), ‘Natural Woodland: Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions’, pp349-351, 14.6 ‘Future-natural woodland’.

‘Phytopthera ramorum in Scotland’

Pojar and Mackinnon (1994), ‘Plants of Coastal British Columbia’

Reynolds F. (2016), ‘The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future’

Rodwell and Paterson (1994), ‘Creating New Native Woodlands’: Forestry Commission Bulletin 112

Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019 – 2029

Scotland’s Native Woodlands: Results from the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, Annex 1 Tree and shrub species native to Scotland.

Smout T. C., Scottish Woodland History, Highland Land-Use before 1800, page 6

Thomas C. D. (2017) ‘Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction’, Chap 5 Pangea reunited.

‘The Great Michael’, Wikipedia

Tompkins S. C. (1986), ‘The Theft of The Hills’

‘The Scottish Government’s Rationale for Woodland Expansion’ (2009)

Montane Scrub, SNH

The Scottish Borders Woodland Strategy, pp14

The UK Forestry Standard

Warren C. R. (2007) Perspectives on the ‘alien’ versus ‘native’ species debate: a critique of concepts, language and practice.

Warren R. J., King J. R., Tarsa C., Haas B., Henderson J. (2017) ‘A Systematic Review of Context Bias in Invasion Biology’

Wikipedia: The Holocene era began 11,700 years before present.

Wilson S McG. (2017) ‘Alternative conifers for Scotland: past record and future opportunities’, presentation to RSFS Lothian and Borders.

Yalden D (1999) The History of British Mammals, Chap 4, page 89

Yalden D (1999) ‘The History of British Mammals’, Fig 3.5 pp73 & Ch 4 pp89.


I am very grateful for the helpful comments provided by Jon Mercer, Chris Badenoch, Donald McPhillimy and Peter Duncan during the preparation of this paper.


[1] “Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019 – 2029”

[2] Forestry Statistics 2018, Table 1.2 Woodland Area in the United Kingdom

[3] ‘The European Union and Forests’ factsheet

[4] Forestry Statistics (2017), The Forestry Commission

[5] Smout T. C., Scottish Woodland History, Highland Land-Use before 1800, page 6

[6] Yalden D., The History of British Mammals, Chap 4, page 89

[7] Crone A., “Wood Use in the Medieval Scottish Burgh: Timber Supply and Building Design”, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee.

[8] The Holocene era began 11,700 years before present.

[9] Gibbard P. ‘How Britain Became an Island’

[10] Mitchell A. (1974) ‘Trees of Britain and Northern Europe’, pp29, 30 The natural distribution of tree species

[11] Kinloch B. B., Westfall R. D., Forrest G. I. (1986) ‘Caledonian Scots Pine: Origins and Genetic Structure’

[12] Scotland’s Native Woodlands: Results from the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, Annex 1 Tree and shrub species native to Scotland.

[13] Mitchell A., Collins Field Guide to Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, preface.

[14] Reynolds F., (2016) ‘The Fight for Beauty’, pp173

[15] Forestry Statistics (2017) Table 1.8, The Forestry Commission$FILE/Ch1_Woodland_FS2017.pdf

[16] Pojar & Mackinnon (1994) pp16, ‘Plants of Coastal British Columbia’ refer to sitka spruce over 500 years old.

[17] Tompkins S. C. (1986), The Theft of The Hills

[18] Forestry Commission 69th Annual Report and Accounts 1988-1989, page 10

[19] Lucas O. (1991), ‘The Design of Forest Landscapes’

[20] The UK Forestry Standard

[21] Forestry Statistics 2018, Tables 1.6 and 1.7

[22] Forestry Statistics (2017) Table 1.4a, The Forestry Commission$FILE/Ch1_Woodland_FS2017.pdf

[23] Rodwell and Paterson (1994), ‘Creating New Native Woodlands’: Forestry Commission Bulletin 112

[24] Scottish Borders Woodland Strategy, pp14

[25] ‘Phytopthera ramorum in Scotland’

[26] Warren R. J., King J. R., Tarsa C., Haas B., Henderson J. (2017) ‘A Systematic Review of Context Bias in Invasion Biology’

[27] Warren C. R. (2007) Perspectives on the ‘alien’ versus ‘native’ species debate: a critique of concepts, language and practice.

[28] Pearce F. (2015), ‘The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation’

[29]  Pojar and Mackinnon (1994), ‘Plants of Coastal British Columbia’, pp14

[30] Jensen R. (2011), ‘The Origin of Oaks’

[31] Bagley, M. (2014), ‘Quarternary Period: Climate, Animals & Other Facts’

[32] Peterken G. (1996), ‘Natural Woodland: Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions’, pp349-351, 14.6 Future-natural woodland.

[33] Wilson S McG. (2017) ‘Alternative conifers for Scotland: past record and future opportunities’, presentation to RSFS Lothian and Borders.

[34] Erfmeir A., Bruelheide H. (2003) “Comparison of native and invasive Rhododendron ponticum populations: Growth, reproduction and morphology under field conditions.”

[35] Edwards, C. and Taylor, S. L. (2008). ‘A survey and appraisal of Rhododendron invasion in Argyll and Bute.’  Forest Research.

[36] Elliot M., ‘Phytopthera ramorum and P. kernoviae; the most serious threat yet to the UK’s native forests and historic gardens.’

[37] Warren C. R. (2007) ‘Perspectives on the ‘alien’ versus ‘native’ species debate: a critique of concepts, language and practice,

[38] E.g. The practice of ‘Affouage’ in France

[39] Continuous Cover Forestry Group:

[40] Abstract of Scottish Agricultural Statistics 1982 to 2016.

[41] Forest Policy Group (2016) ‘A brief history of ‘the deer problem’ in Scotland’

[42] ‘Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government by Scottish Natural Heritage’ (2016)

[43] German Forestry, Forest and Game

[44] ‘An Ecological Site Classification for Forestry in Great Britain’ (2001) Forestry Commission Bulletin 124

[45] Freeing the Landscape: Proceedings of the Knepp Vera Conference (2017)

[46] Hall, J.E., Kirby,K.J., Whitbread, A.M. (revised 2004) ‘National Vegetation Classification Field Guide to Woodland’

[47]  Krummholz

[48]  Montane Scrub, SNH

[49] Armstrong H. & Forest Policy Group (2015) ‘The Benefits of Woodland: Unlocking the Potential of the Scottish Uplands, Part II Supporting Evidence, page 1

[50] Edwards T. & Kenyon W. (2013) “Wild Deer in Scotland”, SPICe Briefing for Scottish Parliament

[51] Duncan P. personal communication.

[52] Yalden D (1999) ‘The History of British Mammals’, Fig 3.5 pp73 & Ch 4 pp89.

[53] Badenoch C. personal communication.

[54] Monbiot G. (2013) ‘Feral’, pp69

[55] History of Wolves in Yellowstone (2017) Wikipedia

[56] Thomas C. D. (2017) ‘Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction’, Chap 5 Pangea reunited.

About the Author

Jim has held an interest and concern regarding forest loss in Scotland since his early teenage years. He has a BSc in Ecological Science and a BPhil in Landscape Design and has been working as a landscape architect in both public and private practice since he graduated in 1981. He is married with two adult children who grew up in the Borders after his wife, Annette, and he moved there in 1992. He is now retired but spent 26 years at Borders Regional Council and then Scottish Borders Council, latterly as ‘Lead Officer Natural Heritage’, where he had responsibility for the Council’s role in relation to landscape, ecology and tree matters. His role included providing consultation responses on the landscape effects of new forestry applications. He was (and remains) a trustee of Borders Forest Trust since its inception in 1995 and passionately supports its ambition to restore at least a little of what has been lost in centuries past and to create something new that future generations will cherish.