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James Ogilvie had a lifetime career in the Forestry Commission, manages his own prize-winning woodland and has raised thousands of pounds for Tree Aid. He is also a director of the Woodland Trust, so has a unique perspective on how our state forestry ha evolved over the last century.
Great War premier David Lloyd George said that the country had come closer to losing from a shortage of timber than for want of food, and with tree cover at only 5% and with the depredations of U-boats on our timber imports the Acland Committee was set up with its influential secretary Roy Robinson from the Office of Woods to advise on the creation of a Forestry Commission. Its first Commissioners Lords Lovat and Clinton raced to Scotland and Devon to see who would be first to plant a tree. Clinton got to Eggesford before Lovat could be in Elgin, but almost immediately the Commission was to be threatened with abolition by the Geddes spending axe. The recurrence of challenges to its existence was to be a feature of the next century during which it nevertheless survived to become one of the longest-lasting of our public bodies.
The Commission resisted Geddes by agreeing to cut its staff and schools, and when land prices hit rock bottom its fortunes began to revive. Inclusion of the Crown Woods the New Forest and the Forest of Dean helped expand its estate to 40% of what it is now, and by 1939 it was Britain's largest landowner. Under its third chairman Sir John Stirling Maxwell, during the Great Depression of the 1930s trials on his Corrour Estate demonstrated the pre-eminence of the Sitka spruce for Scottish conditions, and Stirling Maxwell had also showed his concern for the well-being of Scottish society by donating the Pollok Estate to the people of Glasgow.
It was Maxwell who tellingly observed that the planting of forest workers on the land was a more anxious and expensive business than the planting of trees. Notwithstanding a Scot John Muir's founding of America's National Parks, in Scotland the Forest Parks of Argyll in 1936 and Galloway in 1947 long predated our two National Parks which arrived as recently as 2002/3. During the Second World War only 10% of timber needs could be met from Britain’s nascent forests, and the workforce expanded from 14,000 to 44,000 with the arrival of many workers from the Commonwealth including lumberjills.
A huge windblow from storms in 1943 did not diminish the market, and an impressive expansion continued through the 1950s, with ten thousand hectares a year planted by the mechanised means of crawler tractors pulling ploughs. The argument for wartime preparedness changed with growth of atomic weaponry and a global market emerged in timber, but the economic and social agenda was increasing and by 1958 4600 people lived in forest villages, the ease of car commuting being less than today. With maturing forest coming on-stream, production nearly doubled in the 1960s though output was still only one-tenth of today, and with the growth of FC grants to non-state forestry schemes new customers included the pulp-mill at Corpach and chipboard factories at places like Inverness, Cowie and Annan.
Mechanisation now included chainsaws as well as tractors, with helicopters for spraying insecticides and fertilisers, but society was changing with the advent of mass TV and car ownership. People began to place more value on the great outdoors, making more visits to forests than would be the case in more recent years, and not always liking what they saw. Its promotion of regimented ranks of softwood put the Commission out of step with public opinion, and a 1963 review required it to bear in mind the need to promote recreation and devote more attention to the beauty of the landscape, though at this stage conservation of the environment was notably absent from the rhetoric.
A Treasury cost-benefit analysis requiring a 3% rate of return in 1972 pointed to a change of emphasis, and the appointment of landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe led to the application of new expertise in forest design. Forest cabins appeared as a brand, but the 1976 drought and the arrival of Dutch elm disease imposed new operational strains.
The challenging, changing 1980s saw strong roundwood imports from Scandinavia and the sale of Commission woodlands into private hands. The Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981 was followed by a broadleaf policy in 1985, but tax relief would promote planting in the wrong places such as the Flow Country until it was abolished in 1988. Afforestation on peat sites was reduced with growing awareness of its contribution to carbon storage.
In the multi-purpose 1990s more was made of the multiple benefits of forestry investment in promoting natural diversity, with open spaces contributing to a forest landscape more resembling a patchwork quilt than a green carpet. Indicative forestry strategies highlighted sensitive areas, while initiatives such as the Central Scotland Green Network brought the environmental benefits closer to communities. Privatisation reared its head in 1993 but raised doubts as to whether the private sector would do any better, and in 1998 a UK Forestry Standard sought to bring together a range of aspirations for our woodlands.
Planting reached its lowest level in 2010, reviving again as Scotland pulled away from England, with virtue-signalling by all the political parties on the merits of planting more trees, but despite 16% tree-cover producing 10M tonnes and supporting 35,000 jobs timber related imports still met four-fifths of demand. In the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis the Commission came close to being leased, and in 2011 environment secretary Caroline Spellman sought to sell the whole lot off in England but was foiled by a petition with over half-a-million signatures. Meanwhile forestry in Wales and Scotland became increasingly devolved, and for the first time the Forestry Commission ceased to be a British brand.
Today forestry contributes £1bn annually to the Scottish economy, of which one-fifth is from tourism. As well as outdoor recreation, the forests provide a setting for environmental art such as sculpture trails. A century of state forestry has transformed the Scottish landscape, and a challenge now for the planning system is to bring everyone within proximity to the psychological benefits of being able to enjoy woodland. The obsession in Scotland with productive forestry must be softened in order that the benefits of its impact on other aspects of our lives may be appreciated. The COP-26 conference will give an opportunity to showcase Scotland’s forestry story and its remarkable achievements in ensuring carbon capture and promoting biodiversity.
Note : James Ogilvie’s very readable booklet “A Brief History of the Forestry Commission – 1919 to 2019” tells the story of 100 years of British State forestry in a delightful nutshell.. This brief but comprehensive history of the best known forestry brand in the UK is a tribute to all those who contributed their time, effort and muscle. Available now: Softback, 40 pages, 35 illustrations, price: £8.95 online or from the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, 2 Walker Street, Edinburgh EH3 7LP