After weeks that have seen nature quietly claim the countryside and rural business plunged into crisis, Scotland’s rural economy is finally on the brink of getting back to work.

A restart plan for the £1bn forestry sector and new Covid-19 safety guidelines are ready to help re-ignite peatland restoration work, deer management, nature reserves, ecological surveys and biodiversity research after weeks of coronavirus lockdown. 

Gradually work which was frozen in time in late March when spring flowers were yet to bud and nesting birds still weeks away from tending to their young, will begin to pick up where it left off. 

During that time and without the loud rattle of forestry machinery, Land Rovers or even welly-booted human footsteps, came signs of nature recapturing some of its territory: deer and goats left the cover of woodland and hillsides to explore quiet village streets, roadkill figures plunged, bees were said to be thriving due to less pollution, birds at Aberdeenshire nature reserve were spotting ‘sunbathing’ on quiet beaches and white-tailed sea eagles with their massive 2.5 metres wingspan swooped over the calm water of the Lake of Menteith, 50 miles inland. 

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There have been downsides too: reports of poaching, allegations of raptor persecution, fly-tipping, litter, wild campers defying lockdown and the countryside code, and businesses which rely on the land, tourists, nature and the outdoors left totting up the costs of almost weeks without income. 

For some elements of Scotland’s forestry sector, worth almost £1bn to the Scottish economy and which employs 25,000 people, lockdown saw some tree harvesters, sawmills and producers play a vital part in keeping the country going.  

Timber was used for pallets which delivered food, pharmaceuticals, and other medical supplies.

Some was harvested to feed biomass energy systems used to heat homes, care facilities and even hospitals, and for agricultural fencing for farmland. 

And Scottish timber helped produce construction materials for emergency Covid-19 hospitals built throughout the UK. 

However, others in the sector – small businesses built around expensive tree felling machines – stalled. Some are now said to be left tottering on the brink. 

Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor, the body which represents the forestry and wood sector, said: “A core of the sector has been able to continue to operate and produce these critical products, adapting to social distancing and safe working. 

“But small businesses haven’t. They are in a state of uncertainty and there are individual cases where business may be struggling.”

He has called for the forestry sector to be placed at the heart of a UK-wide ‘Green Recovery’ reboot of the economy. 

“We are the sector that plants trees, provides habitat for wildlife and rural employment. When we harvest trees, the carbon is locked in,” he said. “This is a real opportunity to take a real step forward.”

The call to seize the green opportunities presented by the ‘new normal’ has been echoed by SNH Chief Executive Francesca Osowska. She pointed to the “significant impact” of lockdown on Peatland Action survey work, deer counts, monitoring of protected areas, invasive non-native species control, sea eagle monitoring and beaver mitigation work and habitat management on nature reserves. 

“A key part of the re-emergence from Covid will be the path we set ourselves to address the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss,” she added.

“It’s clear that nature has to be central to any recovery plan post-Covid-19 and that’s why we are concentrating hard on the ‘green recovery’ – ensuring that nature can help us be more resilient socially, economically and environmentally.”

But while some rural businesses and organisations can begin to embrace a new norm, for others there is still uncertainty. 

The Association of Deer Management Groups has warned that businesses which rely on deer stalking could lose up to £9 million if it is not allowed for the rest of this year, with impacts on venison dealers and producers. 

Uncertainty over social distancing rules and quarantine restrictions have prompted some estates to scrap or scale back pheasant shooting plans for October, while the grouse season in August expected to be dramatically curtailed. 

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According to Simon Hodgson, Chief Executive of Forestry and Land Scotland, returning to work takes time: “We are developing and implementing new measures that will allow (our staff) to stay safe as they get back to field work. 

“There is a lot to do. Car parks - and to some degree mountain bike trails - need to be checked for things like vandalism, fly-tipping, wind blow, downed trees, wildlife that might have moved in or even abandoned vehicles.

“We have no intention of cutting corners and compromising the health of our visitors and staff.

“There is a lot more to opening visitor centres than simply opening the door and switching the lights on.”

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: “Easing out of lockdown will only be successful if we do so gradually and cautiously. 

“The focus of the Scottish Government remains on tackling the virus, protecting public health and saving lives, but we are also acutely aware of the need to support vital sectors of the economy, such as forestry, to resume their activities safely.”

He praised the forestry sector’s contribution to the Covid-19 response and added: “We all know that forestry and environmental land management is vital for the future and for our climate change ambitions. 

“We are increasingly coming to realise the significant role they play to the economy and, as we move gradually from restart to recovery from the impacts of this pandemic, forestry will play its part in our plans for the Green Recovery too.”

Meanwhile, across the countryside work normally at the heart of the battle to redress the impacts of the climate crisis - from peatland restoration to biodiversity research – is also reflecting on the impact of lockdown.

It comes against a background of unusually dry and hot spring weather which raised fears of wildfires and anti-social behaviour in the countryside – from fly-tipping to wild camping. 

“The effect of the lockdown on the bog will probably turn out to be minimal compared to the effect of the spring drought we have just experienced, which followed one of the wettest February on record,” said Dr Roxane Andersen of from the Environmental Research Institute at North Highland College UHI.

  “Projects are still being planned and work might be allowed to resume later in the year. However, the uncertainty means that current projects cannot be allocated to contractors.  “Equally, funding cannot be used by estates, at a time where income from other sources, like bookings for fishing and stalking, have dramatically decreased.”

The truncated field season will affect the collection of key data, she added.  And while birdsong has been a defining feature of lockdown for many, data collection and research at RSPB Scotland’s nature reserves have stalled, making it difficult to understand the impact lockdown has had on bird life. 

“It is now possible for us to catch up with some of our survey and monitoring work that will allow us to see how wildlife has fared this season,” said a spokesperson “We will be assessing visitor facilities at reserves prior to any re-opening in light of sensitive species nesting closer to walkways.”

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According to a survey from Scottish Land & Estates, over 90% of rural business owners are confident they can reopen while safely adhering to social distancing measures.

However, for many some – such as Craggan Outdoors near Grantown-on-Spey – business is likely to be at a minimum at a time when bookings would normally be full.  Instead of two dozen different sporting activities, the attraction is offering just eight to small groups living within five miles of the centre, and website traffic has plunged by around 80%.

“It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, when we’d normally see a lot of school parties, Easter holidays, stag parties,”says Keith Ballam, managing director.

“Everyone has been through so many emotions, despair, acceptance, hope through the support of family, friends and customers.  “There are so many unknowns, it’s a challenge for everyone.”