Discovering Reforesting Scotland was a huge milestone in my life. Having become involved with a local campaign against an opencast coal mine, my activist journey had just begun. I attended an environmentalists' gathering in Fife, where I noticed a guy sporting a fluorescent British Coal jacket. Eventually, I plucked up courage and asked why he was wearing that jacket, as you do, and learned that I was talking to the editor of the Reforesting Scotland Journal. If the jacket had a story, it has long since been forgotten. I was amazed to learn that there was an organisation, based nearby in Edinburgh, writing about, and campaigning on, what then seemed to me such radical issues: land reform, forest culture, real sustainability. I became involved initially as a volunteer and stayed for 10 years, the last six as editor. One of the reasons for leaving was to find a way to earn money from closer to home and, as luck would have it, I was recently taken on to edit the Journal again on a freelance basis - from home!
Our disrespect for trees is a symptom of our disrespect for the environment at large. There is a mindset, which has persisted for thousands of years, that humans can't possibly damage something as vast as the environment - it's everywhere and it's ours. But while this may have been conceivable 100 years ago, when we numbered less than 2 billion and most of us grew our own food and no one flew, there is no doubt that today, our actions are having a devastating effect on the whole planet. More is learned about the importance of forests as we lose them; new species are discovered fleeing from the ruins of their old-growth forest homes, as the machinery rolls in.
Many trees but too few forests
Scotland's forests have suffered immensely from human land use: over-grazing by domesticated animals and un-predated deer, encroachment by settlement and agriculture and, of course, logging. For centuries we have used and abused the land as we saw fit and this continues, despite now having a wealth of information about how important our forests are. While Scotland is rich in trees compared to the rest of the UK, globally it isn't and the iconic hills and moorlands, so beloved by tourists, belie our history of deforestation. I remember marvelling at the tree-clad hills in the south of France, where trees actually grow to the tree-line.
According to Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), Scotland has nearly two billion trees growing across more than 1.3 million hectares - that’s around 17 per cent of Scotland’s total land area. However, only about ten per cent of our forests are natural; most have been planted relatively recently and consist mainly of conifers - spruce, pine, larch and fir - that grow fast in Scotland’s mild and wet climate. A monoculture of exotic species is not a forest - Scotland has many trees but too few forests.
Who's planting our children's trees?
The need for ecologically resilient mixed-age, mixed-species forests is becoming urgent, with fungal pathogens on the rise and changing weather patterns, yet mature forests cannot be rushed. FCS is leading a field-based survey of all of Scotland’s native woodlands to identify their location, extent, type and condition. However, there are other threats on the horizon, one of which is biomass. Campaign group Biofuelwatch has looked at proposed power stations across the UK and calculated that demand is set to increase to around 90 million tonnes of wood per year. Given that we currently have less than 10 million tonnes of wood available in the UK (and that’s for use across all industries), that's a lot of imports even if we did have a massive biomass planting scheme in place, which we don't.
I'd rather we used biomass from trees grown here than from imported trees or, horrors, imported biofuels, which frequently come from land where until recently old-growth forests stood. Yet I can't imagine campaigning for plantation forests! Whenever I have such an energy dilemma, it reminds me that the solution is obviously wrong. Yes, biomass may work well in a small-scale, decentralised system, which uses locally-grown wood as part of a renewable fuel mix but biomass can't replace fossil fuels in electricity generation as it is today. As ever, we need a new narrative for our relationship with nature. We need to redefine progress and reassess convenience. And whatever we do, we need to plant more trees if we are to make the transition to sustainable living.
I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
"IX." by Wendell Berry, from Leavings. © Counterpoint Press, 2010.
Images: Apple trees taken by the author at Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peeblesshire
Mandy Meikle lives 25 miles south-west of Edinburgh and has been speaking on peak oil issues since 2004. Mandy writes an increasingly-occasional blog as the Cheery Pessimist, gives talks on energy issues and edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal.