Councils may get say in forests v sheep row

L-r, John Dougan (Forrestry Commision-in red jacket), Vicky Davidson (local councillor), Ian Thompson, George Milne (Director officer for the Scottish Region), Richard Lochhead and Ian Hepburn.
L-r, John Dougan (Forrestry Commision-in red jacket), Vicky Davidson (local councillor), Ian Thompson, George Milne (Director officer for the Scottish Region), Richard Lochhead and Ian Hepburn.

BORDERS farmers may have helped save other regions suffering the same fate as the Ettrick Valley, where farms have been lost and more than a third of the area is under trees.

Jimmy Sinclair, chairman of the National Sheep Association (NSA) Scotland, and Ian Hepburn, vice-chairman, met rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead last week to discuss the loss of hill farms to forestry.

And they hope the meeting could lead to planning changes allowing councils to halt too much afforestation in rural areas.

Mr Hepburn, of Northhouse, Hawick, said: “It’s too late for Ettrick but I think long-term it’s positive.”

Three upland valley farms are currently being ploughed for trees and a heated meeting of residents about the issue recently was attended by more than 100.

Mr Hepburn said: “Mr Lochhead was quite concerned at the impact that it’s had on the Ettrick Valley and the scale of the forestry there. He said he wants to use the Ettrick Valley as an example for the future of something that should not be allowed to happen again. He was quite surprised the council didn’t have more say in the matter and that they couldn’t stop this

“He really wants the local council to have a say in the matter.”

The minister is organising a follow-up meeting between Scottish Borders Council (SBC), the NSA, farmers, the Forestry Commission and the Scottish Government, to look at the issues in the context of the government’s first land-use strategy, due to be published this week.

The government aims to plant almost 25,000 acres of trees annually and says it wants a quarter of Scotland to be in woodland by 2050 to help battle climate change.

Hill sheep farmers are either being forced out by landowners keen to cash in on grants, or being made offers they can’t refuse to sell to companies and investors wanting to take up the tax advantages of forestry.

Mr Lochhead said: “It is vital, when developing and delivering on our policies, that we strike the right balance of rural land use. Agriculture and forestry are both vitally important to the future of rural Scotland and I am keen to do all I can to promote effective integration between the two sectors.”

Mr Hepburn said the farmers at the meeting agreed with the need for intergration but said the government had to make funding more accessible.

He said: “We would like to see more integration between forestry and agriculture and have it so that there are a lot of pockets of woodland rather than blanket forestry, which can be beneficial to the farm as well as forestry and the environment.

“We could soon rack up the acreage rather than do what has happened up the Ettrick. Every farm has a corner or wet bit or awkward place they could plant if the right funding was there, but at the moment it is too difficult to get into the Scottish Rural Development Programme.”

Also at meeting were representatives from Scottish Rural Payment & Inspections Directorate, NSA, Forestry Commission Scotland, SBC councillor Vicky Davidson, who has also been campaigning for change, and NFU Selkirk chairman Alec Telfer.