Can we have too many trees?

Hunting and mountaineering organisations say that plans to increase forest cover in Scotland will ruin the countryside. I disagree.

A couple of summers ago, I strolled through Glen Feshie, wondering why this beautiful corner of the Cairngorms didn’t feel British. Ah, that’s it: little Scots pines poked through the heather alongside baby willows, dog rose, black grouse and other burgeoning signs of life.

I grew up enjoying the bare majesty of the Lake District. Our treeless uplands are, to me and most other people, completely normal. In times of bewildering change, in everything from politics to the climate, we cling to normality. This must be why Mountaineering Scotland has allied with its normal foe, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, to criticise the Scottish government’s plan to increase the country’s forest cover from 17% to 25% by 2050.

The gamekeepers fear losing their normal business of deer stalking and grouse shooting. The mountaineers fret that tourists enjoy Scotland’s normal landscape and not “miles-long wanders through woods”, as Neil Reid from Mountaineering Scotland put it.

Following an outcry from members about this apparent opposition to trees, Mountaineering Scotland has acknowledged that allowing native forests to return is a positive move.

Trees aren’t intrinsically good. Covering another 8% of Scotland with lifeless industrial blocks of non-native plantations won’t meet government goals of enhanced landscapes, richer wildlife or more jobs. Modern mechanised forestry is not a big employer. Arguments about relative tree cover – Norway, the most comparable northern European country, has 33% tree cover; Finland 73% – aren’t totally convincing, as there’s something to be said for abnormality. Perhaps the treeless, denuded Scottish landscape is a unique selling point.

But people fearing the extinction of normality should go for a walk through Glen Feshie (rewilded by the Danish clothing billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who owns more than 200,000 acres of Scotland – more than the Queen) or visit Trees for Life, recreating native Caledonian forest in the Highlands. These are landscapes bursting with life.

The mountaineers will still have their views (magnificent peaks tower above any natural tree line), and hunters will have more wildlife to kill, if they really must (Finland’s forests support 300,000 hunters; Norway shoots more grouse than Scotland). This new normal will be better for everyone.

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