THE number of new trees being planted in Scotland is at its second highest level in nearly two decades despite poor weather conditions and lockdown restrictions, new figures show.

New figures reveal that Scotland delivered over 80 per cent of all new tree planting in the UK with 10,860 hectares of new woodland planted which is the second highest level since 2001.

Nearly 22 million more trees were planted in Scotland last year, but coronavirus restrictions and prolonged bad weather meant significant disruption to the planting season and put the new target of 12,000 hectares just out of reach.

But with tree planting able to get back on track in phase one of the route map out of lockdown, progress is being made, with forestry grant approval covering 9,000 hectares, with a further 7,000 hectares of applications being worked on.

Scotland’s forestry sector is worth almost £1 billion to the Scottish economy and 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.

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

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: “This is an outstanding result, in what were really difficult circumstances.

“A very wet winter slowed planting which then came to a stop as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. That was the right approach. No target is worth pursuing if it puts people’s lives at risk. So we should celebrate and welcome this achievement. Scotland has produced the second highest planting figure in nearly 20 years and again exceeding our original planting target. This is really positive news.

“We also know that there is a healthy number of woodland creation proposals coming forward.

“That is important, not only because of the contribution forestry makes to the rural economy, but also for the role it plays in providing essential supplies for the wider economy.

“That was demonstrated during the pandemic with timber being supplied for construction and maintenance in NHS facilities and for pallets for distributing medical and food supplies. Forestry will also have a key role to play in our Green Recovery, with productive conifers and native woodland helping to lock in carbon as we continue to strive to reduce our emissions to net zero.”

The annual target for native woodland creation was achieved with 4,529 hectares being created, around 42 per cent of all the new forests in Scotland.

Around 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere by Scotland’s forests every year and the Scottish Government’s forestry strategy wants to increase the total land mass covered with of trees to 21% by 2032.

George Anderson of Woodland Trust Scotland said: “We very much welcome the progress made in Scotland. Forty per cent of all woodland creation is native this year, which has tremendous benefits for biodiversity.

“There is a great deal of shared understanding and common purpose across the different sectors – commercial and conservation.

“We will continue to work with the Scottish Government and all sectors of Scottish forestry to deliver new woods for people and nature, and to help fight climate change. This is great news today but we have to keep it up.

Dr Sheila George, food and environment policy manager at WWF Scotland, added: “We know woodland expansion has an important role to play in capturing carbon and helping us meet our net zero targets.

“Native woodlands are also important wildlife habitats, so it’s disappointing to see that the target this year has been missed. Planting targets have been historically difficult to meet, indeed last year was the first year they were achieved.

“But as we begin the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, this largely outdoor and rural sector, could be one of the first to contribute to Scotland’s green recovery. We must increase our efforts and support different types of woodland, including more native species and farm woodland, to be planted and managed sustainably.”