Thousands of years ago, Scotland was covered by dense forests of birch, hazel, pine and oak which reached as far as Shetland and the Western Isles.

They provided a habitat for some of the most impressive and fearsome animals ever to walk the land, including wolves and lynx.

But social and economic change over later centuries saw them fragment and shrink dramatically, as the Highland Clearances, sheep farming and large shooting estates transformed the country. 

Forest cover had collapsed to only around 5 per cent of Scotland’s surface area by 1900 and growing numbers of deer caused the decrease to continue through the 20th century. 

Now, however, efforts to restore them have received a boost, with new data revealing the nation has a third more native woodland than previously thought.

The study into Woodland Ecological Condition – which comes as Scotland plants millions of trees in a bid to boost biodiversity and combat the global climate emergency –is the largest and most in-depth assessment of the ecological condition of any habitat in Great Britain.

READ MORE: Sustaining the future of Scotland’s forestry 

Published as official statistics by the National Forest Inventory (NFI), it reveals that north of the Borderin Scotland 442,611 hectares north of the Border are now classified as native woodland.

The figure is up 131,458 hectares on the previous estimate reported in the 2014 Native Woodland Survey of Scotland assessment.

Experts said that the majority of this was in the North East and West of Scotland.

Welcoming the latest data, Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor -- the membership organisation for sustainable forestry and wood-using businesses -- said: “This is an important piece of work which provides vital baseline data to inform the success of woodland policies and incentives in delivering for biodiversity in the future.

“It shows that all kinds of woodland can deliver for biodiversity --including productive forests. 

“This is especially true for modern forestry when judged against the challenging benchmark of an ancient semi-natural woodland.

“Furthermore, the survey demonstrates that the active management of a forest for wood production delivers higher biodiversity as well as a renewable supply of wood to help sustain an industry that benefits climate change mitigation, jobs and the economy -- at minimal cost to the public purse.”

Scotland’s native woodland coverage is set to increase as the nation continues to meet its target for native woodland planting set out in the Biodiversity Route Map to 2020 and Scotland’s Bonn Challenge commitment. 

In 2019 Scotland planted 4436 hectares of native woodland.

The statistics reveal that over 430,000 hectares of these native woodlands are in overall “favourable” or “intermediate” condition.

They also show that Scotland’s non-native woodlands make an ecological contribution, with less than 6% in “unfavourable” ecological condition.

Last year it was reported that woodland cover in Scotland was at 19%.
Rural Economy and Tourism Secretary, Fergus Ewing, welcomed the latest forest study, adding that it would help to shape future policy.

“This is the first report of its kind and we welcome it as a positive step forward in woodland management,” he said.

“These statistics provide a reliable indication of woodland ecological condition across all woodland types in Scotland.

READ MORE: Scotland's industrial wastelands to be turned into forests 

“They show that Scotland has even more native woodland than previously thought, and that almost all of our forests are making a real contribution in terms of environmental benefits.

“Importantly, they provide us with a measure of how our forests and woodlands are becoming more resilient to future climate challenges – by developing those ecological conditions and processes found naturally in native woodlands.

“When compared to the challenging benchmark of ancient semi-natural woodland, this shows which of the native woodland benefits modern forestry possess.”

Mr Ewing added: “This is valuable information that will help to shape and deliver more strategic, cost-effective policies and management interventions that will help Scotland to improve the quality of its woodlands for biodiversity, for visitors, and all those who benefit from Scotland’s forests, while still delivering timber for our expanding construction industry.”