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Trees and turbines are a match made in Scotland

By Rob Gibson

Rob Gibson argues that forests and wind farms can live in harmony as part of the battle against climate change

Wind farms and forests can co-exist.
Wind farms and forests can co-exist.

Trees and peat have been energy sources for millennia. In today’s terms they still create headlines as we begin to address rampant climate change.

They embody lessons to be learnt from past mistakes, which unfortunately are compounded by negative media stories over wind energy.

Late in February several papers competed for lurid headlines, seven million – or was it 14 million – trees have been felled to make space for wind farm footprints across Scotland. "New figures cost to woodland of onshore wind arrays in north" yelped the P&J. "Fears over finding balance between green energy and sustaining forest" warned The Herald.

Deep in the thickets of these articles the truth was only half evident. Scottish Renewables has calculated that "seven million trees felled for wind farms is equal to 3500 hectares. Therefore, in over 20 years, wind farms have felled 0.32 per cent of the trees that commercial forestry would harvest in one year".

But the press’s negative spin based on figures revealed in an FOI by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) failed to point out that FLS produces only a third of the Scottish cut timber. These articles failed even to distinguish between a tiny hardwood harvest such as oak and beech and vast non-native conifers, mainly Sitka spruce. Thanks to plantings in the seventies, these close-packed plantation forests are ready for felling.

Pitching trees versus wind farms is not new. In 2014 the Daily Telegraph announced that millions of trees were felled to make space for wind farms.

In 2020, we know these scare stories don’t wash. Last year 11,000 hectares of forest was replanted in Scotland, meaning it had been harvested then replanted – 11,000 hectares equals 22 million trees felled in one year by commercial forestry, public and private.

But how accurate is measurement of numbers of trees in any case?

During my work as an MSP I visited the site of Strathy South, a wind farm site in north Sutherland which has subsequently been approved after an appeal. Sited in a high horseshoe of shallow peat on the edge of the Flow Country, the trees planted there – with generous subsides from the Treasury in the 1980s – are stunted.

In my Easter Ross garden, we felled a Scots pine grown over 20 years that reached 12 metres. Those on the northern peat were older and smaller. That says a lot, journalists seeking negative headlines ignore sizes of trees or whether hardwood or softwood. In passing they admit that felled trees are fed into the various market sectors, greedy for tonnes of green coniferous roundwood.

Trees are not renewable, they are replaceable. While they grow, they sequester carbon, but their growth cycle required felling and replanting. That’s why peat is distinct as a carbon sink and now attracts huge funding from the Scottish Government.

Internationally, the value of peat is seen as vital in the war against catastrophic global overheating. All the deep peat of the Highlands and the raised peat of the Lowlands and northern England sequester more C02 than all the forests in the UK and beyond.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) commented favourably on plans in the Scottish budget recently.

They stated: “The Scottish Government has published its budget for 2020/21 in which it provides £20 million for peatland restoration and a commitment to invest £250 million over the next 10 years. This has been agreed as part of the Scottish Government's commitment to nature-based solutions to the climate crisis and described as 'an absolute game changer for CO2 emissions reductions, biodiversity and the rural economy' by Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform.

“This increase on funding from last year is a welcome move and the longer-term commitment to funding will help those planning large-scale peatland projects over several years. It also gives assurance to the restoration contractors and businesses who have to organise staff and other resources that it is worth investing in this important work.”

Lessons now learned from the early days of tackling climate change include a ban on dug peat for horticulture or fuel. Don’t plant trees on deep peat. In Ireland, Bord na Mona has ended the use of peat for electricity production and 100 per cent biomass will be their immediate future fuel at Edenderry.

However, a huge amount of peat is used in horticulture and that must stop, whether from Ireland or Scotland. Also, the burning of timber to make electricity is so inefficient. At Lockerbie in south Scotland the timber-to-electricity power station would never get the go-ahead today.

Happily, tree planting will reach all-time records in Scotland by 2030 far more than in England. Grants to private landholders are key. Forestry and Land Scotland chief executive Simon Hodgson has described trees and wind turbines as a win-win, for trees that are felled for wind development enter the far wider timber supply chain. Over 20 years, timber production from FLS is 39 times greater that the extraction of trees for onshore wind development.

All the sloppy, headline grabbing is a waste of wood pulp. It sits uncomfortably with a UK government U-turn just announced. As of 2021, the next round of auctions to enter the energy market will include onshore wind, albeit to compete with offshore wind and solar.

So onshore wind, the cheapest form of electricity production, virtually halted by the Tories four years ago, is set for a new lease of carbon-saving life. To be built, no doubt, among our greatly expanded Scottish forests.


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