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17 May 2024

Sitka spruce plantations at Stobo Hope

Find out why the resurgence of Sitka spruce in upland areas of Scotland like Stobo Hope is a concern for wild places.

Sitka at Stobo Hope - Broughton Heights

^ Heather moorland in the Southern Uplands soon to be planted with Sitka spruce.

The Trust subscribes to the philosophy of ‘the right tree in the right place’, but for a well-used and simple slogan, this is not translating into action in many parts of Scotland.

There is concern - particularly among communities in the Southern Uplands such as Stobo Hope - about the spread of Sitka spruce plantations, what this means for the local landscape and biodiversity and whether this is how public money should be spent.

Impacts and hidden costs

Forestry plantations have their place in parts of Scotland and can be justified where they are providing home-grown timber to supply a UK market or contribute to UK exports, whilst being managed to high environmental and operational standards. However, as with other types of development that the Trust scrutinises for impacts on wild places, location and understanding the impact of a development on the local environment should be carefully considered.

Plantations change the quality of local landscapes. These are often densely planted monocultures with distinct edges, introducing uniformity into previously relatively natural landscapes. In addition, there are lesser seen losses and costs to this type of land use change. Plans often proceed without proper community consultation. In some cases, they also proceed without full knowledge of the extent of harm to the local environment.[1] There is also a lost opportunity when one type of land use change happens without consideration given to alternative land uses, such as what a restored upland landscape with a mosaic of natural woodland and blanket bog might have provided for carbon sequestration, soils and native species. This lost opportunity is also a future cost, borne by future generations.

Public money, in the form of forestry grants, is facilitating the expansion of Sitka spruce plantations in Scotland. Given the rate at which species and native habitats have been lost in the UK, we believe there is a stronger case for forestry grants to be aiding repaired ecosystem functioning of upland habitats by supporting native woodland creation schemes.[2]

Too many Sitka spruce plantations?

Data from the UK Government’s Forest Research unit shows that Scotland’s tree population is dominated by non-native commercial conifers, including Douglas Fir, Norway and Sitka spruce. Conifers account for 71% of Scotland’s trees, while the remainder are broadleaves, including ash, beech, birch, hazel and oak.[3] The State of Nature Report 2023 recognised that Sitka spruce is the ‘most frequently planted non-native commercial forestry species in Britain’ and is presenting a threat to neighbouring habitats through colonisation.

In the Southern Uplands, local communities are already living with a large share of Scotland’s commercial plantation schemes and applications for new spruce plantations persist. Examples in the Scottish Borders include Stobo Hope, Broughton Hope and Harrow Hope, which if all three schemes were approved would create near continuous forest cover across much of 14km2 or 1,400ha.

Sitka at Stobo Hope - John Buchan Way

^ John Buchan Way: This entire glen is to be planted with Sitka spruce.

The location and foreseen negative environmental impacts of creating a mainly Sitka spruce plantation on the scale envisaged at Stobo Hope has led a group of local people to challenge both Scottish Forestry’s decision to approve the Stobo Hope forestry scheme and the decision to award a £2 million grant for this scheme.[4]  Much of Stobo Hope is within a designated National Scenic Area and supports moorland species including Black grouse and Golden eagle. As a popular walking area, the hills provide recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike.

Sitka at Stobo Hope - Broughton Heights^ Broughton Heights: These slopes are to be planted with Sitka spruce.

Despite the potential impacts to the landscape and native species, Scottish Forestry proceeded to approve the scheme and award the grant without an Environmental Impact Assessment. In April 2024, The Stobo Residents Action Group lodged a petition for Judicial Review with the Court of Session, Edinburgh.[5] This petition seeks to challenge the decision by Scottish Forestry in January 2024 to approve the Stobo Hope woodland creation scheme.[6]

Is carbon offsetting driving Scottish Forestry grant applications for Sitka spruce?

Companies are purchasing land in Scotland to plant fast growing softwood trees to then sell carbon credits. In the case of Stobo Hope, Sitka spruce production and carbon credits appear to be the main motivation for buying the land. The £2 million grant was awarded to the Guernsey registered ‘Forestry Carbon Sequestration Fund’, while the application for the Stobo Hope woodland creation scheme appears to have been overseen by the Northumberland based True North Real Asset Partners Limited.

The Trust is cautious about claims that softwood plantations result in net gains for carbon sinks when other factors are considered. These factors include diesel powered machinery used in commercial timber operations, the carbon released from the soil when disturbed by ground preparation works for planting and again when the wood is extracted, the relatively short lifecycle of the woodland created and the onward supply chain for the timber products industry. We also have concerns about carbon offsetting more generally which we have set out in a published policy position.[7]

Time to re-examine the approach to woodland creation in Scotland?

In February 2024, The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) published a report, ‘Inquiry into public financial support for tree planting and forestry’[8]. The RSE undertook the research after realising that despite the large public subsidy payments towards forestry creation, there was little analysis of the public benefits. Academics, community interest groups, members of industry, public sector agencies, non-profits, sector representatives, and members of the public were consulted, and their views analysed by an expert panel. On examining current schemes which subsidise commercial conifer plantations, the authors of the report concluded that there is a pressing need for the Scottish Government to re-examine its approach, stating ‘subsidising commercial conifer planting is not justified and the potential for the forestry sector to deliver multiple benefits has not been fully realised.’[9]  

We believe the report’s 16 recommendations merit consideration. If the recommendations were to be implemented, we could expect revised policy and grant criteria for woodland creation (an end to public subsidies for commercial plantations and support for woodland creation by natural regeneration), a more effective Environmental Impact Assessment process, a greater appreciation of the ecological and landscape value of restoring moorland habitats and communities benefiting through meaningful consultation. The Scottish Government would have a greater chance of meeting its pledges to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 and restore biodiversity by 2045[10], and people living in rural parts of Scotland, who care about the future of the land, may have less need to resort to legal action.


[1] Native woodlands are known to support a rich diversity of native species. By contrast, Sitka spruce plantations create ‘monocultures’: land that is characterised by the absence rather than the abundance of its diversity. In addition to blocking light from the forest floor which means nothing grows, they change the natural composition of the soils and acidify nearby watercourses.

[2] In the Trust’s response to the ‘Future Grant Support for Forestry' consultation last year we pointed out that natural regeneration would be a cheaper way to achieve woodland creation targets and that the Forestry Grant scheme should shift from an emphasis on grants for fencing (to protect woodland creation schemes from deer browsing) towards grants for deer population reduction and control measures, which would allow natural regeneration to occur across whole landscapes.

[3] See analysis of forest research provided by The Ferret in their article:

[4] Information about Scottish Forestry’s grant scheme:

[5] Save Stobo Hope Crowdfunding page:

[6] In the longer term, the Stobo Residents Action Group hopes that this Judicial Review will prompt the Scottish Government to review whether Scotland actually needs any more commercial coniferous forests in Scotland, as well as considering designations to protect valuable moorlands and unimproved grasslands across Scotland. Saving and enhancing these landscapes would promote biodiversity and help preserve Scotland’s renowned cultural heritage.


[8] Link to the report from the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s website:

[9] Inquiry into public financial support for tree planting and forestry, Executive Summary

[10] Scottish Biodiversity Strategy to 2045 Tackling the Nature Emergency in Scotland, final draft published for consultation in December 2022


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