The recent news about the signing of an agreement between the Scottish Government and private sector interests on a project to remove 500,000 tonnes of timber from Rannoch Forest in the Highlands by rail is an important step forward in the expansion of timber transport options in Scotland.
It is estimated that this new facility will greatly reduce the number of lorry movements (estimated at up to 4,000 annually) on the single public road that provides access to forests in the area, at a time when much of the mature forestry in the area is approaching felling stage.
Stakeholders in the forestry and timber processing sectors have long been exploring potential rejuvenation of the railways as an option to transport timber, complementing the existing and planned measures that the sectors are already using to transport logs by sea to processors in Scotland, Ireland and mainland Europe. Sea transport at present is principally in the form of the use of ports along the Argyll Coast and floating piers and handling services from islands and peninsulas on the west coast.
While these projects are never going to completely replace the use of roads as a means of transporting timber, any developments that can help to reduce the number of lorry movements are an important step in helping address the concerns of rural communities on the impact of timber traffic, particularly at a time when there is increased focus on the expansion of tree coverage in Scotland. It is anticipated that the new Scottish Government will now look to deliver the SNP election pledge to increase annual planting targets by 50% to 18,000 hectares a year by 2025. Additional public funds of £150m over a five-year period have also been promised, for various initiatives designed to increase tree coverage in Scotland. These include measures to increase the National Forest Estate (publicly owned forests, through Forestry and Land Scotland) and to facilitate planting by crofters.
The contribution that the forestry industry can make to offset carbon emissions is key to the success of the woodland expansion policy, as can be seen from the levels of interest in the Woodland Carbon Code and the value of carbon sequestration units, on which we wrote last year. While the environmental impact of transporting felled timber by road accounts for a relatively small proportion of the overall greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the felling and processing of timber (calculated at 6% in 2010), the increased use of shipping and rail as a means of transporting timber will clearly have a positive impact on the overall contribution the forestry sector makes to carbon reduction targets. The Rannoch Timber Project alone is estimated to result in an annual saving of around 650 tonnes of CO₂ emissions.