The National Sheep Association has lent its support to the forestry sector’s idea that it could be commercially viable to combine the two land uses. At a launch at Lymiecleuch Farm, near Teviothead earlier this month, Forestry Commission Scotland announced that it wanted upland farmers to turn between five and 10% of any unused land over to trees.
FCS head Jo O'Hara said that tree-planting can be beneficial to farm businesses: "Agriculture and forestry can work side by side, that's a no-brainer. But the big game changer is the new CAP. It means farmers can retain their basic payment when trees are planted on their land, and there is a strong market for commercial timber."
Owner of Lymiecleuch, Sir Michael Strang Steel, explained that he has integrated 420ha of forestry within the 1246ha of sheep grazing land: "We have sited it carefully on the worst ground and our flock productivity has improved," he said. Contract farmer Ian Hepburn commented that his experience at Lymiecleuch had converted him to forestry. He runs 1750 Cheviots on the land there, and said: "Sheep farmers never used to speak about trees, and that's putting it politely.
"I've seen too many communities and villages disappear because of blanket forestry, but I've had to change my mind. It does have to be planned carefully and strategically, so that fencing is used as the field perimeter, but it can work. We have managed to maintain flock numbers, while also increasing productivity."
NFUS president, Rob Livesey gave the union's support, and union policy director, Jonnie Hall, said that it was time farmers came round to the idea as well.
However, NSA Scotland vice chairman, Billy Renwick, had some doubts. He commented: "For farmers who are next to Forestry Commission blanket plantations, it's a nightmare. Forestry Commission don't kill foxes and leave control up to farmers."
NSA regional development officer George Milne explained that the new support had actually been in place for five years. He said: "We took Richard Lochhead to a farm at Argyll five years ago to look at integrated planting, as opposed to blanket planting. At that time, we encouraged more of the integrated planting.
"The Forestry Commission also seem to be coming round to the idea of integrated planting systems, and they are starting to realise the benefits it could provide.
"This system could be done all over Scotland, if done strategically, and provided the farms are suitable. If the trees were planted strategically, near to boundaries, for example, then boundaries could be fenced and some livestock could then be put back onto that land. That means somebody could make use of it, whether that was a contract farmer, or a new entrant," said Mr Milne.
"At the end of the day, tree planting targets must be met, so they are going to go somewhere, so it would be better for farmers to embrace this integrated system, which would mean we wouldn't have to accept blanket planting. Financially, it will help and suit a lot of places, but it is the farmers' choice, and, ultimately, whether or not it suits them and their land."