Can money grow on trees? Expert advice is key to getting a small scale woodland scheme off the ground - by Matthew Imrie and Gregor Dalziell
Project: Small scale woodland creation
Where: Blairskaith Muir on Hillhead Farm near Glasgow
When: February 2019 - Present
Why: Maximise an unproductive farm asset
Services required: Forestry, Land Management, Planning
Forestry has a key role to play in helping the rural economy recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That was the assertion from Scotland’s rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing when he announced a £1 million grant in July to encourage farmers and crofters to diversify into forestry production.
The grant is the first to be made available under the £40m Agriculture Transformation Programme which was launched in February to support farming and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The money can be used to cover 90% of the cost of creating small-scale woodlands that will capture carbon and provide a source of income for farming businesses.
This focus on carbon capture could be a game changer, with a fledgling trade in carbon credits potentially offering much quicker returns in a sector that has traditionally appealed to more longer-term investors.
But just how easy is it to tap into the available grants and get a small-scale woodland scheme off the ground? Bell Ingram’s Matthew Imrie (pictured above) has first-hand experience of developing such a project on his family’s farm near Glasgow.
He says: “The Scottish Government’s push to encourage farmers to plant more trees ticks a lot of boxes – socially, environmentally and economically. However, it’s not as simple as identifying a piece of land, planting some trees and watching the money roll in. It can be a complex process that requires expert advice at every stage to ensure success.”
Matthew’s woodland journey began last year when the idea of developing a forestry scheme on unproductive land was first discussed with his farmer father John Imrie.
Those plans moved one step closer when Forestry Land Scotland (FLS) approved the Hillhead Forest planting application earlier this summer.
This green light was the culmination of 18 months of work by Matthew and his colleague Gregor Dalziell, who overcame a number of hurdles to successfully progress the first phase of the project … not least the surprise discovery of a colony of protected Great Crested Newts in a pond on the site!
Matthew explains the background: “While Dad was able to cultivate the majority of this new acreage and bring it into silage ground, the hill ground was moorland, and barely fenced. Rather than just leave it sitting we wanted to maximise our least productive asset in order to safeguard the future of the business.”
However, convincing any farmer to consider ‘alternative’ uses for their land is always a challenge.
Matthew continues: “I think it’s fair to say that most farmers and landowners take a great deal of persuading to use their land for anything other than traditional farming purposes. There has to be a very good reason to diversify and that reason is almost always financial. First and foremost, they want to know it’s a solid investment and what level of outlay is required to bring in a good income.
“From my experience of working as an assistant land agent at Bell Ingram, I knew that forestry offered good investment potential thanks to ongoing policy backing to meet Scottish Government targets of planting 36 million trees by 2030, and that a woodland creation scheme could provide the solution we needed at Blairskaith.”
Phase one of the project kicked off in 2019 when the Imrie family asked Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) to conduct an initial feasibility study on the targeted area which produced a potential planting plan with three blocked areas.
Matthew takes up the story: “CSGN’s planting plan proved to be incredibly optimistic in the long run (eventually being narrowed down from 100 to 60 acres) but at that point it provided enough promise to kick off the project
“Next I enlisted the help of my colleague Gregor Dalziell to start the woodland application process. As well as collecting the required background information, including soil types, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) grant areas, forest suitability maps, haulage routes and regional forest strategies, photos were also taken of different viewpoints on and around the land to gauge the landscape impact.
“We also commissioned additional information in the form of Deep Peat, Breeding Bird, Phase 1 Habitat and Archaeological surveys which allowed us to make an educated assessment of the project’s feasibility early on and we were able to quickly adjust the budget and present this to the client for reassessment.
“It’s important to be proactive at this stage as it allows you to design your woodland around any potential barriers to planting.
“The Archaeological survey was good and didn’t present many issues, likewise the Breeding Bird survey highlighted some factors but nothing too major aside from some contradictory statements about bird displacement between our survey and the one next door.
“The Phase 1 Habitat survey threw up the most hurdles. This showed the proposed planting area to have a vast array of different habitats and highlighted some protected species in the form of a Butterfly Orchid and potentially a Great Crested Newt breeding ground as well as some Annex 1 habitats. These were all to influence the design of the woodland and the tree species that would be selected for planting.
The plan remained fluid, allowing us to factor in the findings of each survey as we received them, then further consultation was sought from the various stakeholders (FLS, SEPA, SNH, the local community council and East Dunbartonshire Council) together with some site visits to discuss our plans and issues highlighted.
Inevitably, the different perspectives from each of these stakeholders raised more issues along with suggestions on how to address them.
“However, the time we spent gathering detailed information was well worth the effort as it has resulted in a woodland that has managed to balance the environmental, social and economic elements required to deliver a more sustainable project ensuring the benefits are experienced not just by our family business but the local and wider community as well.
“The application was finally approved in June 2020 with the process having started in earnest in February 2019. While this site is admittedly more complex than some, it clearly demonstrates why it’s vital to have expert advice when embarking on any planting scheme.”
Bell Ingram’s Gregor Dalziell has been closely involved in the Blairskaith project from the beginning and believes that clear and speedy communication with all stakeholders is key to delivering woodland projects.
He adds: “A good example of this is that we were able to map the site using QGIS technology which meant that any amendments could quickly be added to the digital plan then fired back to all interested parties immediately. It’s a huge advantage to be able to map the area to the modern standards required by FLS. That makes a massive difference to the success of the project.
“Employing a rural professional services firm like Bell Ingram to deliver your woodland project means that you don’t just have access to our expert forestry team but to wide range of specialists whose land management experience and expertise spans everything from QGIS mapping to grant applications, planning to AMC funding.
So what’s next for the Hillhead Forest project?
Matthew Imrie says: “Community engagement is a big part of our vision for the Forest. There is already a bridle path through the farm which links Milngavie to Lennoxtown, and we plan to add gates and access points at certain locations to allow the public to walk through the forest and up to the trig point to enjoy the stunning views north to Ben Lomond and south over the city of Glasgow.
“We want to develop the social/environmental aspects of the scheme by involving the community at the planting stage. Our aim is to encourage people to connect with their environment, while empowering them to research, experiment and engage with their local landscape and flora.
“We are also keen to develop partnerships with our local schools using the Forest as an educational resource to bridge the gap between how young people in our urban areas see our countryside compared with those that live and work in it.”
However, the long-term success of projects like Hillhead Forest is ultimately down to its potential to generate an income.
Matthew concludes: “For many farmers forestry is becoming an increasingly important part of their income stream. The sector is exceptionally buoyant at present with investors taking advantage of current tax and grant regimes, as well as the opportunities offered by carbon credits. We’ll certainly be exploring carbon credits at Hillhead, not just to make our Forest economically viable, but as an important part of efforts to tackle climate change.”