The news that half the trees in Brewdog’s Lost Forest died within the first 12 months, has led campaigners and woodland experts to call for changes in the Scottish government grant scheme that funded the trees – and the way it favours planting over regeneration.

“Scottish Forestry,” said one native woodland advisor, Victor Clements, “has a plantation mindset – not a regeneration mindset.”

“The Scottish Government," he added,  "doesn't seem to realise the signals they send out are important. When you only give people £600 per hectare for regeneration, compared with thousands for planting, that’s a strong signal, and the signal is, ‘Regeneration is not important.’”

Douglas MacMillan, professor of environmental and biodiversity economics at the University of Kent called for "no planting grants for fast-growing industrial conifers such as Sitka spruce" and for grants to be "tripled for native woodland expansion through natural regeneration".

Nick Kempe, author of the blog that broke the news about the Brewdog tree deaths, said that rather than pay people to plant, money saved from recent slashes to the Scottish Forestry grant scheme budget, could be used to “pay people to ensure deer numbers are reduced”, thereby supporting woodland regeneration.

The deaths of the trees at the Lost Forest in Kinrara were reported in Mr Kempe’s Parkswatchscotland blog last weekend. The campaigner, who had already, in February, blogged observations about dead trees at the site, published a reply to a freedom of information request he had sent to Scottish Forestry.

In the response, Scottish Forestry said it had paid BrewDog £690,986.90 to date and confirmed that a very high proportion of the planted trees had died.

It also noted that it had not done a full survey but had carried out an inspection in September 2023. For the pine, planted there, it said, “the initial planting density of 1600/ha was achieved but there was high mortality of trees across the site with an initial estimate of 50 to 56%.” With the “native broadleaved option” it said, there was “very high mortality of around 95%.”

The Herald: Kinrara EstateKinrara Estate

Brewdog has responded. Following the publication of the blog, James Watt, CEO, published a reaction in a a LinkedIn post.

“Last year,” he wrote, “we planted 500,000 trees in partnership with our friends at Scottish Woodlands. But then came the fifth hottest Scottish summer on record. An incredibly hot and dry summer was followed by a harsh winter as savage gales and sweeping frosts hammered the Scottish Highlands.”

“Woodland projects of this scale are always a challenge. You know that some saplings won’t survive, and you plan for it from the outset. But last summer’s extreme conditions resulted in a higher-than-expected failure rate, particularly Scots Pine, which is one of eleven native species we planted.”

He noted that 50% of the 500,000 saplings planted did not survive their first 12 months. “We have done a full assessment with Scottish Woodlands Ltd and two weeks ago we began replanting the failed saplings in earnest and we have already replaced 50,000 of the baby trees that did not survive the winter.”

But the death of so many trees raised bigger questions around whether there was a problem not just with Brewdog’s approach to tree planting, but the policies and grant schemes that encourage and reward planting.

Speaking following his blog, Nick Kempe described the current forestry grant scheme as “incredibly destructive”.

“It’s the wrong model of forestry and it has also fuelled the land grab. When organisations like Brewdog or any of the others buy up land, they know the costs of planting are going to be met by the government. In terms of all this carbon offsetting they’re not committing anything themselves. I think it’s a major part of the greenwashing problem.”

The annual target for woodland creation in Scotland is currently 18,000 hectares, but it has only once hit these in the last five years, and last year it was reported that in 2022/3 Scotland created only 8,190 target of 15,000 ha. 

In December, Scottish Forestry's budget was slashed from £104 million to £70 million, and its planting grants were reduced from £77 million to £46 million for 2024-25 - leading to criticisms that targets could not possibly be met. 

There are two key ways of creating woodland. One is by planting, the other regeneration, in which areas are protected from grazing animals like deer or sheep, and areas of existing woodland are allowed to spread. Some planting can also be combined to encourage regeneration.

The grants scheme, said native woodlands advisor, Victor Clements, favours planting over regeneration, by chiefly rewarding plantation-style planting.

He said: “Scottish Forestry's mindset  is that you plant trees at regular density because that gives you certainty over outcome and it’s easy to monitor and easy to manage.

"A Sitka spruce plantation has got trees planted every two metres and that’s a plantation. It’s got 100% canopy. It’s easy to manage it. It’s easy to define it. You can put it on the map and measure the size of it."

Kinrara's trees, for instance, planted at 1600/ha, would have been spaced around 2.5 metres apart.

Mr Clements continued: “But if you have a native woodland that has a thicker area of trees in one place and they’re thinner somewhere else and there’s lots of open space within it as well, that’s much more difficult to map and define, but that it what a native woodland is.

“My view is if you want to encourage regeneration in Scotland, you incentivise regeneration. You make it worthwhile for people. The regeneration grant  is £600 per hectare, recently increased from £300.”

This compares with, he estimated,  “nearly ten times as much” for planting.

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He also noted that regeneration comes with “an atonishing amount” of bureaucracy  since all areas of regeneration need to be individually mapped and allocated separate identification codes.

He added: “It will probably cost you a large proportion of that grant to map and quantify it. It isn’t worth it. Hence the amount of regeneration being encouraged in Scotland is so low.”

A Scottish Forestry spokesperson said: “It is important to note that we have doubled the grant rates for natural regeneration recently which now stand at £600 per hectare, which covers the majority of the costs, mostly monitoring and surveying, that landowners incur. Additional support is available where other activities, such as scarification or fencing, where they are required to secure natural regeneration.”

The Herald: Successful pine planting at Alladale Wilderness ReserveSuccessful pine planting at Alladale Wilderness Reserve (Image: naturescot)

Mr Clements maintained that the grants are not enough - and that the system as stands means that planting is still the logical choice.  “If you’re a woodland company, like Scottish Woodlands at Kinrara, and you had a choice between planting and regeneration – what would you do?”

At the heart of the question of regeneration are deer and the controversial issue of their control – since while significant numbers of deer are still grazing on land, the trees will not return.

Mr Clements said more should be done to incentivise deer control.  If you’re only paying people £600 a hectare to regenerate forest, people will think it's not worthwhile. If you were paying £2000 a hectare to regenerate their woodlands, people would do their sums very quickly and think that might make sense, and we would see much better results on the back of this."

Nick Kempe, however, advocated for a different system of reallocation of funding to motivate deer control. “My view is the reduction in forestry grant is a good thing and that it should just be spent on reducing deer numbers. If we really got on top of the deer problem in Scotland and there were some incentives for farmers to control sheep, we would get natural regeneration in Scotland. 

“I would be paying people to ensure that the deer numbers were reduced within the area of a scheme. Because if they do that and the deer numbers are low enough natural regeneration will take place. I would also recommend that deer levels should be kept to two (or below) per km square.”

Professor Douglas MacMillan, who has written various papers on forests and economics, including one, in 1998 that looked into the cost-effectiveness of woodland ecological restoration, called for dramatic changes to the grant system. 

"There should," he said, "be n planting grants for fast-growing industrial conifers such as Sitka spruce . They provide no public benefits and no local jobs.  There should be total ban on exotic confiers in the uplands - they generate no benefits.  Even carbon storage benefits are exagerated by Scottish Forestry - lots of carbon emitted during site preparation, harvesting, processing and consumption."  

He also advocated that "grants should be tripled for native woodland expansion through natural regeneration to cover costs of deer control" and that there should be a  "presumption against planting of native woodland in the uplands (Land Capability Class for Forestry 6 and 7) where natural regeneration can take place".

"Natural regeneration," he said, "is best for biodiversity, landscape and carbon (significantly so)."

Finally, he called for a "long term strategy to support local jobs in tourism and small-scale timber processing".

"There are," he said,  "hardly any local people now employed in forestry - local people suffer the costs of industrial forestry and receive no benefit."  

Brewdog have said their intention is to replant the dead trees, at their own cost. If the company did not do this, following a five-year-assessment, the appropriate percentage of the grant would be reclaimed. 

This begs the question – how many other reclaims have there been due to failed plantings? Over the last two years Scottish Forestry has initiated reclaims seven times, with seven separate businesses. The total value to be reclaimed was £26,132.44.

The Herald: A Sitka spruce plantationA Sitka spruce plantation (Image: Getty/stock)

Before this, Scottish Forestry said, reclaims “were not needed”. Six of the seven reclaims were due to over-declarations by applicants, i.e. on inspection of completed works, Scottish Forestry found less work was completed, than claimed. The 7th was due to “the removal of funded work within the contract commitment period, in this instance, part of a planting site was to be redeveloped”.

A Scottish Forestry spokesperson said: “Woodland expansion in Scotland is important in the overall fight to tackle climate change and nature loss. The Forestry Grants Scheme in Scotland is the key driver to ensuring that this happens and since it was established back in 2015 it has supported around 85,000 ha of new woodland (170 million trees) across Scotland of which 8,000 ha was through natural regeneration.

“Our goal is to get the right tree in the right place and every woodland creation scheme that is sent to us for approval is thoroughly and rigorously assessed against UK forestry standards and environmental regulations.

“Forestry grant rates are a percentage (20-80%) contribution to the costs incurred by applicants and don’t include additional payments or incentives. Most of the costs associated with delivering natural regeneration are associated with reducing deer browsing pressure. The grants support this at a landscape scale through five year management agreements.

“Just last year we carried out a full public consultation exercise on the Forestry Grants Scheme and received around 200 responses from across the country – we are currently working through this to ensure that future forestry grant support continues to deliver for Net Zero policies, the environment and communities.”