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15 May 2023

Trust supports response to Scottish Forestry consultation

The John Muir Trust has been working closely with member organisations of Scottish Environment LINK’s Woodland Group to respond to Scottish Forestry’s Future Grant Support for Forestry consultation.

In addition to supporting the Woodland Group’s common response, the Trust has submitted additional evidence detailing how the grant can support natural colonisation and renegeration of woodland via sustainable deer management. You can read the Trust’s response below:

Question: Herbivore browsing and damage can have a significant impact on biodiversity loss and restrict regeneration. How could forestry grant support mechanisms evolve to ensure effective management of deer populations at landscape scale and at small scale:

At landscape scale: We completely agree that herbivore damage from high deer populations have a significant impact on biodiversity loss and restrict regeneration.

We further argue that mitigating impacts from deer damage using fencing and individual tree protection systems are both inefficient uses of taxpayer money and deliver sub-optimal biodiversity benefits. Instead, we propose that the Forestry Grant Scheme shifts emphasis of public funding away from grants for fencing towards grants for deer population reduction and control measures which would allow natural regeneration to occur across whole landscapes.

Reducing deer population to allow for natural regeneration and colonisation is a tried and tested model in Scotland. Examples include Mar Lodge, Creag Meagaidh, Glenfeshie and Abernethy. The John Muir Trust advocates for this approach to be generalised via the Forestry Grant Scheme.

Data from Scottish Forestry demonstrates that grants for planting conifer or native broadleaf plantations – which need to be fenced off and protected from deer damage in their early years – are much more expensive forms of woodland plantation compared to natural regeneration, which would require much lower deer densities to operate at a landscape scale.

Indeed, in 2021, Natural Regeneration applications cost £443/ha and represented just over 6% of the total area of woodland funded through the Forestry Grant Scheme. Conifer applications represented 51% of total area while native broadleaf applications represented 13%. Conifer plantations were ten times more expensive per hectare than natural regeneration and broadleaf plantations were twelve times more expensive.

If all applications in 2021 were for natural regeneration, the total grant cost would have been approximately £22.6 million instead of £227 million.

Funding natural regeneration wouldn’t just allow for larger areas to be wooded for the same amount of public funding. It would also create healthier environments at a landscape scale by avoiding the artificial parcelling of the land caused by fencing, instead focusing on financing the necessary deer population reduction and control.

Fencing prohibits the development of key habitats that transition between woodland and open land. It also restricts the movement of animals, including deer, which at appropriate levels help woodland regenerate. For example, their trampling provides small areas where direct contact between seeds and the soil occurs, increasing germination rates. Finally, because deer are woodland inhabitants, their welfare is improved when they have access to woods for shelter and food.

Furthermore, woodland which has naturally regenerated and colonised is more resistant to climate change. The Woodland Trust cites scientific research that demonstrates how naturally regenerated trees adapt to their local environment, surviving better than planted trees. Descendants of naturally regenerated trees carry and refine this adaptation further, making woodlands more resilient to climate change, pests and diseases. These natural landscapes are home to more diverse species, which benefits wildlife. Continuous cover forest management for naturally regenerated woodland delivers additional benefits such as improved water quality and reduced downstream flood risk.

Moreover, a Forestry Grant Scheme that shifts support towards deer management and natural regeneration would be in line with the principles of ‘public money for public good’ as well as the revised Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement. This Statement includes the expectation that land holders act as stewards of Scotland’s land. This must include managing the land for wider public benefit. With unsustainable numbers of deer in Scotland undermining the Government’s nature recovery, biodiversity and climate targets, the Forestry Grant Scheme can encourage landowners to manage the land for wider benefit by creating new grant payments for deer management reduction and natural regeneration. Payments for deer fencing, by contrast, merely push and indeed concentrate the problem elsewhere.

Finally, the grant scheme could support rural economies by increasing demand for deer stalkers, creating new supply lines for local food suppliers and markets to sell venison (high quality, low carbon meat).

According to a report commissioned by the ADMG, the number of paid FTE jobs decreased between 2006 and 2016, from 966 to 722. Meanwhile, deer populations increased from 586,000-669,000 in 2007 to 750,000-1,000,000 in 2020. Bringing deer population back to sustainable levels and maintaining that level would require more paid professional stalkers, therefore increasing paid employment in the industry.

In addition to creating more paid jobs, maintaining sustainable deer populations would provide an opportunity to open stalking to the local community. Other countries living with deer offer opportunities for the locals to actively take part in stalking. Thanks to savings from the move away from artificial, protected plantations towards more efficient natural regeneration, government could support the industry to develop training programs designed to bring in a wider section of local communities into stalking.

To ensure the grant’s success, the Forestry Grant Scheme should consider requesting maximum deer densities be achieved on land covered by the grant, with regular reports for tree seedling monitoring. These densities could vary depending on the type of land covered by the grant. The intended outcome of establishing a maximum deer density would be to ensure optimal tree growth via natural regeneration and colonisation.

Small scale: Because deer move across large areas, it follows that landscape-scale measures (or lack of measures) impact small scale landholdings. Deer management is most effective when measures target a population’s whole range. Isolated attempts to exclude deer from smaller areas (for example via fencing) can only have a smaller impact, while displacing the issue elsewhere.

Izzy planting trees - Cat Burton

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