Our latest blog is a guest article by Dr Eleanor Harris, who takes her Confor hat off on this occasion to give us a personal view, outlining a vision for the lowlands that speaks to the needs of a 21st century society.
I was inspired by Gus Routledge’s ‘upland vision’ on this blog. I’m not an ecologist: I’m a historian and environmental campaigner who has found a niche in the forestry industry. Yet Gus’s ecological vision with human influences in the uplands inspired me to a companion piece from the other end: supplying human needs with an eye to ecology in the cultivated lowlands. While Confor members’ forests and businesses have been an inspiration to me, this is a personal blog in which I gave my imagination free rein – it does not represent Confor policy.
Some fields grow crops of spruce, regularly thinned, so the sunshine sparkles down to the ground and sustains a carpet of wood-sorrel. Its strong, straight timber – the most highly-prized by the mills – will become the frames for houses, and the high-quality long, white fibres are manufactured into plastic-free packaging and clothing. Other fields grow Douglas fir and redwoods. Between them are fields of wheat, oats, vegetables, and potatoes – their 10-12 applications of pesticides per year slashed thanks to the thrushes which nest in the surrounding woodland and feed on slugs. If they are sprayed, or when the fields are ploughed, any drift or soil is caught quickly by surrounding trees.
In other fields, dairy cattle overwinter amongst widely-spaced eucalyptus. Their evergreen leaves hang vertically, and at this spacing don’t drop, so light filters down and allows 60% grass growth, frost-free and sheltered from storms. When the regional land use requirements were calculated, it was realised their super-fast growth could free up additional land for native woodland; and while they don’t sustain much native woodland ecology, their canopy cover has increased the insects, birds and bats supported by the dairy farm. Elsewhere firs – silver, noble, and grand – are growing tightly-packed on a short rotation. Like the eucalyptus they supply high volumes of chip for the mills for construction board, furniture, and biopolymers for 3D printing. Goshawk and pine martin chase red squirrel and siskin in their canopy; mycorrhizal and saproxylic fungi decorate the dark forest floor. At the far edge, a grove raises its head above the rest: these trees have been selected as the area for retention, in compliance with the UK Woodland Assurance Standard, and over the next few hundred years will grow to be giants, as the crop is harvested and replanted at their feet. Behind them, the other side of the active travel route, the statutory ten-metre buffer zone to the river is growing alder, oak and rowan.
A soft fruit farm is researching growing strawberries, raspberries and blueberries amongst trees instead of polytunnels. The valuable timber and the rewards of being carbon-negative are strong incentives, but it must work for the berries which are a valuable crop. Their research grant is enabling them to develop ‘forest gardening’ on an industrial scale. The robotics (3D printed from local wood) and monitoring are state-of-the-art, but the concept – that these fruits naturally grow in woodland – is drawn from nature.
The landscape is full of people. Cycling along the river we reach a new modular timber housing development, which stores more carbon than was emitted in its few weeks of manufacture and construction. With its solar panels, heat pumps and biomass boiler supplied from management of old farm woodlands, it sends more power to the grid than it takes, and generates the green hydrogen required for the local bus, to the town one way and the uplands in the other.
Since the pandemic, people have taken more pride in their social gardens than their secluded home-offices. They grow flowers, shrubs and trees from across the world: many are accredited to participate in ‘ex-situ’ botanical projects to conserve plants from threatened sites. Exploring the estate is like a global tour to New Zealand, China or Chile, with neighbours discussing their Wollemia pines or rare azaleas. The gardens are also a haven for native birds, bats, hedgehogs, pollinators and lichens. Creatures which used to be regarded as secret creatures of the uplands – otters, pine marten, crested tit – visit from the neighbouring countryside. Most people work in the highly-skilled and prestigious green sectors – conservation, horticulture, hunting, aquaculture, forestry and farming – but for the many whose roles are lab- or office-based their gardens provide the opportunity to use the practical skills they learnt in their foundation year at college.
People reminisce about the meat, alcohol and air travel restrictions in the same breath as the smoking ban and plastic bag tax: what a fuss we made about them at the time, how little we notice them now! The amount of land required to grow fodder and malting barley was globally unsustainable; repurposing some of this land to grow timber has enabled concrete, steel and plastic consumption to be reduced. Scotland’s major export to developing countries is not now whisky, but the expertise and infrastructure to build zero-carbon homes. The meat we do eat is delicious: locally-sourced lamb, beef, venison and game, fed on the rich diet of the uplands.
In his blog, Gus talks of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ where major changes quickly become normality. Cultural shifts have taken place in every generation of history, often rapidly. Change is always uncomfortable, but we know that in the face of climate and nature emergencies, it is inevitable. The important thing is to drive change before change drives us. Having strong visions like these of where we are aiming is an important part of the process. While the vision of a ‘rewilded uplands’ is becoming well-developed and sophisticated, that of an ‘enriched lowlands’, while just as necessary, is neglected by environmental commentators. I hope my first pitch – inevitably from a forestry perspective – acts as a starting point for others which develop, improve, and ultimately realise it.
Where human ‘provisioning’ is mentioned in land use discussions, it’s too often just about food – or perhaps food and energy. Yet we need houses, furniture, clothes, food packaging and pallets, fencing, paper, high-tech products, and the vast majority of these can be grown on a tree in Scotland. If they are not, they are one-time mined, quarried or drilled from mineral sources at a terrible cost to habitats and the climate. Perhaps even worse, our reliance on timber grown overseas exacerbates the global shortage of timber to the point where ancient forests are logged. Even the well-policed UK suffers from illegal felling on a small scale. When the price of wood goes up, countries like Albania, Poland, Romania, Russia struggle much more to protect their intact natural forests from illegal loggers. If Scotland can become a timber nation, and help plug the hole in the world’s commodity demands with a sustainable supply, it will be making a major global contribution to both decarbonisation and habitat protection.
There are important differences between my vision for the lowlands and Gus’s for the uplands. His begins with the existing ecology. My lowland vision is on land with little ecology remaining, so starts with people (land managers, residents, consumers), global biodiversity (wheat, trees, flowers), and global trade. Sometimes we talk as if all these things are bad, and to be kept out of our countryside. My view is that any strategy for the earth must start with them. People, produce and trade must not be banned, but made good. To protect and expand those native ecosystems, in Scotland and around the world, we must first take seriously the question of how and where we supply our needs, in a way which captures carbon and restores degraded habitats. Yet we can do this in ways which also build “new natures” where ecosystems have been all-but lost through unsustainable production.
More and more industrialists, architects, foresters and farmers are embracing this vision of a green economy; but too often it seems to be regarded as in opposition to the rewilding vision. Yet it is not the opposite: it is the complement, even the prerequisite. We cannot afford to regard production and industry as the boring detail to be sorted out by someone else. The environmental community must be inspired by timber production, housing design, food consumption and global commodity trade.
It has happened before: it’s thanks to collaborations between environmentalists and industry that we have systems like PEFC, FSC, the UK Forestry Standard, Fair Trade and the Woodland Carbon Code, which still deliver sustainability in forest products today. These have begun a change, which must be grasped by a new generation of environmental-business collaborations, and accelerated into a transformation.