Scottish farmland being returned back to a forest by Tilhill Forestry

Tilhill Forestry is managing a project to convert a large upland sheep and cattle farm extending to just over 1000ha, close to Newcastleton in Scotland, into what will become a significant area of productive forest – helping to meet government targets for planting and supporting the wood processing industry.

The land was purchased from a local farmer in 2013 by a Tilhill Forestry client with the intention of establishing a well-designed commercial woodland with the main focus being on investment return.

To inform the woodland design process and support the application for permission to plant the proposed woodland the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process had to be followed. This saw a very detailed Environmental Statement (ES) produced and approved in early 2016.This key document was generated through a team effort which called upon every aspect of Tilhill’s in-house expertise: from the Ecology Team to Forest Managers and Senior Management. Some of the more specialist survey and report work, archaeology, soils and habitat was outsourced to expert advisors.

Tilhill staff worked on the grant application and the forestry design, utilising the large volume of detail and knowledge collected through the EIA process. The application and design was submitted and approved by the Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) after a lengthy and detailed consultation process.

Tilhill’s Forest Manager Andrew Fisher explains: “We had to produce a design that fitted with our client’s objectives but also met the requirements of the UK Forest Standard (UKFS), while satisfying the various consultees, namely FCS and Scottish Borders Council.

“One of the most important issues that was raised through the consultation process was ensuring the woodland design fitted in with the local landscape character, especially in the valley bottom. This point saw significant discussions between the interested parties and the design of this lower ground was revised to address their concerns culminating in the introduction of a more diverse design and species mix.”

After almost three years of planning and hard work, the Environmental Statement was approved in March 2016 with the grant application approved in late April. This approval gave permission to plant 1.2 million conifers which will reach maturity and produce timber in 35 to 40 years’ time. The key commercial species is Sitka spruce, accounting for 70% of all the trees to be planted. These trees will provide timber for Scotland’s ever developing timber processing sector with the raw materials going for conversion to construction timber, pallet boards, paper and panel board production, among other outlets.

A significant element of Scots Pine planting has been incorporated to create visual diversity and enhance the habitat value of the woodlands, along with Western Red Cedar and productive broad leaves on the lower, more sensitive, valley bottom. All of the Sitka spruce is from improved stock, seed orchard and full sibling. We also plan to use improved Cedar stock.

The first 100 hectares has now been planted with the balance of the project, some 500 hectares, being planted during 2017. A significant proportion of the balance of the 1,000-hectares is deep peat (greater than 50cm depth) which for ecological and carbon sequestration reasons cannot be planted.

Now that permission is in place, one of the biggest operational challenges facing the Tilhill Forestry team is access and transportation of materials across the vast 4km wide site as there are currently no roads and the terrain is very rough and includes many deep water courses.

Future challenges will include minimising browsing damage of the young trees by deer and other herbivores as the site is surrounded by forest. A significant area of the softer, more palatable species on the lower ground is being protected by the erection of deer-proof fencing and the installation of vole guards.

Community consultation has been a very important part of the planning process and included a public drop in day in October 2015 in the Hermitage Village Hall. Maps and detailed proposals for the scheme were displayed and Tilhill Forestry staff were on hand to talk through the proposals and reassure local people that emotive issues such as landscape, wildlife, public access and local employment had all been fully considered and the proposed woodland designed to be sympathetic to their concerns.
“Returning farming land to forest is very exciting and challenging. The land is very suitable and there is an excellent road network for transporting the timber once the trees have reached maturity,” added Andrew.