HL Deb 16 November 1955 vol 194 cc611-36

5.16 p.m.

THE EARL OF MANSFIELD rose to draw attention to the present position of the forestry extension programme; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, your Lordships will have noticed that I have left the terms of my Motion somewhat vague. That was done intentionally, in order that none of your Lordships should be prevented from taking part in the debate because the terms were too narrowly drawn. At the same time, I think I should begin by making it clear that most of my remarks will be directed towards the extension programme for Scotland, with particular reference to the Highlands. Furthermore, although towards the end of my speech I shall allude for a short time to the position of the private forester, on the whole my main topic will be the problems of the Forestry Commission and how they can best be met.

I think it would be for your Lordships' convenience if I made clear at the outset the reasons why I put down this Motion, by reading certain short extracts from the first page of the Report of the Forestry Commissioners for the year ended September 30 last. The Report appeared during the summer. After alluding to the fact that their total acreage planted had reached the record and very satisfactory figure of 70,400 acres, the Commissioners went on to say this: In the last few years the yearly increase has been maintained only by materially reducing the reserves of land awaiting planting proportionate to the area actually planted. In 1947 the reserve stood at 13.6 times the annual planting programme; the figure for 1955 is only 4.6 times, and the reserve is not at all evenly distributed. So the point has been reached where the Commissioners have been forced to accept the unpalatable fact that after 1954 the annual planting programme will not only stop increasing, but will in fact fall.…The reason for the future downward trend of planting programmes is a shortage of land. Since 1951, it is only in the present year that the area of plantable land acquired has exceeded the area planted, and that by only 6,700 acres, and an expanding planting programme cannot be maintained without a considerable reserve and a steady intake of suitably distributed plantable land.

As your Lordships are aware, after the war it was decided that it was absolutely necessary that depleted areas of woodland should be not merely restored to their former figure but raised to some approximately 5 million acres throughout the country, which figure would still leave us, as regards the area under timber, far behind most of the countries of Europe. I cannot be certain of the figure to-day, but a few years ago France had something like 18 to 20 per cent. of her land under timber; Germany 28 per cent.; Sweden 56 per cent.; Finland 70 per cent.; while even Holland, usually regarded as a somewhat treeless country, had a greater proportion of her land under timber than we have. The position, therefore, is serious, especially since this programme of rehabilitation and eventual expansion will be slowed down considerably by shortage of plantable land. The reason for this shortage of land is not specifically given by the Commission in the Report, but my investigations tend to show that it comes from three different sources which I would ask your Lordships to consider in rising standards of importance.

In the first place it has been represented to me that the Commission do not always take into account the changed values of money and the period of inflation in which we now live; and are, therefore, unwilling to offer the present value of the land which they wish to acquire. It is difficult to get exact information, because most of these transactions are confidential; but where I have been able to get at least approximate figures it would appear that there is an element of truth in this suggestion, although I do not think it happens in a great many cases. In two cases at least where the land proposed to be acquired already had on it a considerable quantity of standing timber, the figure offered for that standing timber was, I know for a fact, far below the figure at which it had been valued for felling purposes by timber merchants. The second cause, I am informed by friends in the estate agency business, is that the methods pursued by the Forestry Commission when they wish to acquire a property are apt to be somewhat dilatory, with the result usually that someone else has stepped in and bought the property in question before the Forestry Commission have made a firm offer. Whether or not that is entirely true I cannot say, but certainly in some instances there would appear to be some truth in it.

The third most important and most controversial cause is the unfortunate differences of opinion that arise over the varying claims of sheep and forestry. The forestry "lobby," unfortunately, is a very weak one, while the sheep-farming "lobby" is extremely strong. There appears to be little doubt that in all too many cases a sheep "lobby" succeeds in persuading the Department of Agriculture for Scotland to issue orders that the Forestry Commission may not acquire the land which they wish to buy. There was a somewhat amusing instance of this not long ago, when, I believe, the Commission had actually acquired a property in Scotland but were prevented from planting it by a decision of the Department of Agriculture. The land was therefore of no more use to them, and it was sold. It was bought by a landlord who had the resources for further planting but no land of his own on which to plant; and since the Department: of Agriculture are unable to take any steps to prevent a private owner from planting his own land, the land was duly put under timber, to the vast annoyance of the Department of Agriculture and the almost unconcealed mirth of the Forestry Commission, even though they themselves were not able to plant the land.

It is in this question of disputes between sheep interests and forestry interests that we need to make a rather careful investigation. As your Lordships are aware, the position in the Highlands of Scotland as regards the maintenance, let alone the increase, of the local population is a serious one, and I, for one, am convinced that, however much we may improve our agriculture in the Highlands, we can do little more than maintain our present rural population there; we can do very little to increase it, so far as agricultural progress is concerned. But when it comes to a question of timber the position is at once very different. A few weeks ago, the Scottish Landowners' Federation had a conference at Oban, and during that conference we visited a number of estates, two being of particular interest. In one, a progressive and able landowner, himself a West Highlander, was developing his property along the most modern lines and had improved it out of all recognition. The other property was the well-known Great Glen cattle ranch, where the experiments which have succeeded in turning heathery moor into excellent pasture are well worth studying. Yet despite the fact that both these properties, in their different ways, have been improved out of all recognition, the painful fact was at once apparent, when one inquired into the labour forces employed: it is most unlikely, no matter what further improvements are made, that at any time in the future those properties will be able economically to employ more than about one man for every 1,000 acres. If one takes the normal sheep farm (the Great Glen ranch being, of course, purely a cattle ranch), the figures are not very different; in fact, from the employment point of view they are rather worse.

Without wishing to bore your Lordships too much with rather technical details, one can take it that it is only on the very best sheep ground that one is able to employ one shepherd per 1,000 acres. The proportion is much more likely to be one per 1,500, or even 2,000, acres. If, however, that land is put under timber, on the assumption that 50 per cent. of the ground is found to be plantable (that is a figure which the Forestry Commission have been able to maintain up to the present, although I think that another 5 per cent. might well be achieved) the employment given when the woods are in full production amounts to one man employed actually in the woodlands, and four others employed in ancillary occupations connected with the timber trade, for every 100 acres. That is to say, where, on an area of 10,000 acres, one would have been lucky to have work for about eight men in the past, one would now, on the basis of planting half that 10,000 acres, have direct employment for fifty and indirect employment for anything up to another 200. The result is that, so far as employment is concerned—and employment in the future is our main concern in the Highlands—the scales are tipped heavily in favour of timber as against sheep. I hope, therefore, that something can be done to make the attitude of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland rather more favourable to timber and rather less subservient to sheep.

It has to be admitted that the position is somewhat different in the South of Scotland. There, the Forestry Commission have, on occasion, made mistakes; they have taken over and planted land which is really too good for timber. Many of the hill farms in the southern uplands are among the best sheep country in Britain. It is quite wrong that they should all be planted. At the same time, it is not always realised by the sheep interests how much most sheep farms could be improved by the planting of shelter belts, not the ordinary miserable little belts a few yards wide which are commonly seen, but large belts anything from 50 to 200 yards wide. I would suggest that, instead of acquiring and planting out in toto these excellent sheep farms, the Forestry Commission should take merely an area that might be anything from 5 to 25 per cent. of the farms and plant large shelter belts. By so doing, not only would they increase our much-needed timber reserves in the country but they would also do a great deal of good to the sheep farmers, probably making it possible for them to carry, on reduced acreage, at least as many sheep as they used to carry before planting came into operation at all.

If this much-desired timber expansion would bring with it this great increase in employment, what then are the real disadvantages?—for disadvantages certainly exist. One is that it would do away with a number of sheep farmers and a still larger number of shepherds; and shepherds everywhere, particularly Scottish shepherds, are among the finest specimens of our rural communities. It would add also to the economic difficulties. It is, unfortunately, necessary that the great majority of the new plantings should be carried out by the Forestry Commission, which means that a great deal of land would have to be transferred from private ownership to that of the State. I have no hesitation in declaring to your Lordships that I dislike—indeed, detest—all forms of State ownership and State administration. However, one is bound to lay on one side what are now known as one's ideological prejudices, in view of the advantages so far as extra employment is concerned, of which I have already told your Lordships.

As regards the position of the private forestry owner, I am glad to say that relations between the private owner and the Forestry Commission are now much better than they have been in the past. I must say frankly (although I know that the statement will meet with the disagreement, possibly the disapproval, of some of your Lordships) that those relations have been considerably improved since the death of the late Lord Robinson. I do not wish to be misunderstood. Lord Robinson was a great public servant, a man of learning, great ability, vast energy and unquestioned integrity. But unfortunately he had little time for private forestry; and the fact that private forestry was almost at a standstill in the years immediately following the war may be attributed largely to the attitude that he took up at a meeting shortly after the inauguration of the Dedication Scheme. This meeting was held in London and was attended by ten representatives (of whom I was one) of the principal landowning and forestry bodies in Great Britain. For two whole days, morning and afternoon, we argued with the then Sir Roy Robinson, and at the end of the second day we all left feeling extremely depressed. The reports that the delegates were obliged to make to their constituent bodies were such that a great many landowners were permanently discouraged from engaging in policies of reafforestation which they had hitherto been contemplating.

Forestry, of course, is a long-term project. Those of us who plant can seldom expect ever to reap the fruits of our planting—just as the timber that we cut during our lifetime was not of our making but that of our ancestors, sometimes of a good many generations ago. Under present taxation conditions, when the landowner is hit at both ends with high income tax and sur-tax, and with the crushingly heavy burden of death duties, he needs to be assured of some reasonable prospect that his descendants, if not he himself, will get something out of the sacrifices that he is making at the present time before he can reasonably be expected to plant on a large scale. Some of us have had a faith in the future that we can see but darkly, and have gone on planting; but many whose resources are extremely strained have not done so. They cannot be blamed for it. The Dedication Scheme, which I supported from the beginning, was, in its original idea, excellent; but it was for long bedevilled by the extremely onerous conditions with which the then Sir Roy Robinson saw fit to hedge it around. It has been since much improved, and we now find a better spirit and more confidence among landowners with (as the Commission Report shows) a consequent rise in the areas that are planted every year.

There is one point on which the interests of both the Commission and the private landowner are completely identical—namely, we want some assurance that the trees we are planting will, eventually, he thinned and, finally, clear-felled, and that they will yield a reasonable profit. Whilst I cannot expect any definite answer on that point from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to-day, I hope that Her Majesty's Government will seriously consider the question of giving some guarantees in the future, both to the Commission and to the private owner, that there will be a market at reasonable prices for all British-grown timber. It should not be a difficult matter when one bears in mind that in the past we have had to import no less than 96 per cent. of our softwood requirements, usually at a cost of many millions of dollars per year—I will not worry your Lordships with the exact figures.

My Lords, I have one final point, particularly in regard to this question of the acquisition of land by the Forestry Commission. As I have stated, to-day relations between them and the private landowner are excellent, but the Commission are greatly in need of land. Ever since their inception, the Commission have had, I believe, powers of compulsory acquisition which they have never used. But it is obvious that if the Commission are going to have to slow down their programme, it will not only be lamentable from the point of view of expansion but will also lead to direct loss to the taxpayer, because of the number of young trees which will be wasted. It may not be generally realised that when seeds are sown in a forest nursery usually 3½ to 4 years elapse before they are planted out. If, then, the Forestry Commission programme is slowed down sharply, it is obvious that many millions of trees must be wasted in nurseries, because once the trees pass the age of four, or at most five, years they cannot be kept any longer—they are useless for planting out. In that case, the Forestry Commission will be almost bound to attempt t) acquire compulsorily the land that they need, in order to avoid this loss to the taxpayer and the slowing down of their programme. Inevitably, that must result in a great worsening of the relations, which are now so cordial, between the Commission and the private owner.

There must he something wrong in this question of acquisition. Week after week one sees in the publications in which such advertisements usually appear—particularly the Field and Country Life—properties offered for sale, of which it is obvious that a considerable portion must be suitable for planting; in fact, quite often it is specifically so stated in the advertisements. If the Commission are unable at the present time to acquire these properties freely, offered in the market, then, as I stated at tile beginning of my remarks, there must be something wrong with their methods of acquisition. It is for this purpose that I have to-day brought forward this Motion, being an enthusiast in forestry, and believing that in it lies the greatest hope for the regeneration of the Highlands of Scotland. I trust, therefore, that in his reply the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be able to indicate some way in which the difficulties apparently facing the Commission at the moment can be met, to the satisfaction of all concerned. I beg to move for Papers.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, it is inevitable that the Motion which the noble Earl has brought forward this evening should be largely concerned with the old argument of land use—sheep versus trees, After all, the acquisition by the Commission of land depends almost entirely upon that factor. I take no sides here. I am one of those who believe that in a country like Great Britain, unlike the Continental countries, the Scandinavian countries and Canada, there are no sides, for forestry and farming must be complementary, one, so far as is economically possible, dovetailing into the other. I have frequently heard it suggested that there should be a national survey of land use. That would be quite impracticable and also undesirable, for one cannot plan these things on paper on such a national scale. Questions of land use must be settled locally and on a local basis.

I yield to none in my admiration for the Forestry Commission. Their job is to produce as much timber as quickly as possible, and ever since they were con- stituted as a Commission they have performed that task extremely well and are doing so to-day. The Commission particularly encourage an extremely fine type of officer into their service, and we private owners should be extremely grateful for all the help that they give us in managing our woodlands. The literature they issue—bulletins dealing with not only forestry matters but wild life and other subjects of interest to woodland lovers—are excellent publications and we are most grateful for that side of their work. I greatly sympathise with their inability to acquire sufficient land to reach their target, but it may be necessary for them, to some extent, to reduce that target. We must bear in mind that since they established their target the Hill Farming Act and the Act relating to the rearing of livestock have come into force. As a result, less land is available for forestry than there was before those Acts were on the Statute Book.

It is only natural that the Forestry Commission should seek to acquire their land in large tracts, for it is much cheaper to plant land in big blocks than in small ones; for, rabbits or no rabbits, woods in almost all the Forestry Commission areas have to be fenced against stock and very often against rodents. But the large areas are running out. Almost all have been acquired and most are nearly planted up. I believe the Commission realise this, for it has been noticeable that, over the last few years, they have adopted a different system and are building up units based on a central wood with satellite woods surrounding. They must look for land in smaller lots. There is still a great deal of derelict woodland left in Scotland and, I believe, all over Britain to-day, though not as much as there used to be. When the last census of woodlands was made, I believe in 1947, something like 50 per cent. of the woodland in Scotland was in a derelict condition. Of course, great strides have been made since. The Dedication Scheme has come into force. Looking at the figures in the Forestry Commission Report, I am proud to note that Scotland is some 20,000 acres ahead of England in the area of woodland which has been dedicated.

One further point: a certain amount of this derelict land is now grazed by cattle, because the cattle subsidy is available and the more cattle an owner puts on cut woodlands the larger is the subsidy he gets. It means that still more land is lost to forestry. But there are thousands of acres of upland grazing which would be much the better for planting up with shelter. The noble Earl has referred to this matter particularly. I would only emphasise his remarks by trying to point out the great value of shelter to grazing. Shelter advances the growth of the grass, very often by a fortnight to three weeks. In the uplands of Wales and Scotland, I have seen how very much better—earlier, greener and more lush—is the grass where it is protected by shelter from trees; and trees protect stock in winter from heavy snowfalls. Often when walking across the hills one finds the white bones of sheep that have perished in the snow only because the shepherd has been unable to reach them. Shelter saves labour and lives and allows sheep to be gathered in nearer the farm.

There is much bad grassland which is now useless. There is much bracken land, particularly in Scotland, which would be far better under trees than used as grass. It is a curious fact that the more one puts stock on bracken land, the more one increases the bracken. It might be expected that the stock would eat the bracken away so that it would gradually disappear, but in fact it works in exactly the opposite way. The stock grazes the grass and allows more room for the bracken to seed and encroach on the hillside, and this bracken question is a very serious one in Scotland. There seems to be some prejudice among farmers against planting trees, though I do not quite know why. It is true, as the noble Earl has said, that one has to wait a long time before seeing any result of one's labour. You do not plant for yourself or the next generation but for three or four generations ahead. But that does not apply to shelter. A man who plants shelter can derive benefit from it in a very short time. Within fifteen years shelter will be doing his farm no end of good.

The Forestry Commissioners are themselves landlords, owning vast areas of hill land. It is curious, but, looking through the Forestry Commissioners' Report for the year, in the Appendix I see details of some of these big forests which have a vast amount of unplantable and agricultural land. They are given in the last column of Appendix 13 to the Report. Of course, a great deal of that land is farmed—it is used for agricultural purposes. Take, for example, a forest like Glentrool in Kirkcudbrightshire. It is upwards of 55,000 acres in total. Out of that, over 35,000 acres—far more than half the total—are listed as agricultural and unplantable land. If only one-tenth of that were given over to trees, intelligently planted in shelter blocks, not only would a large contribution be made to the nation's timber supply but the pasture would he vastly improved. The Forestry Commission have power, under the Forestry Act, to resume control for forestry purposes of this land. I do not think any of us would like to see action taken on those lines. Far better would it be if the matter could be arranged by peaceful negotiation. I think that the two Departments should be able to settle these matters amicably, and there should, I feel, be far more liaison between them than there is at present. Indeed, I would go further, and suggest that on every agricultural committee there should be an expert on forestry matters, if one could be found, to advise the farmers how they should plant up their hillsides for shelter.

My Lords, I do not think I have much more to say. I would add only this: that, apart from the question of growing the timber, how very much nicer a well-treed country is to live in. It brings more interests, also, into that part of the country, and therefore brings more people into the district. The benefit of trees in a country is incalculable. It is one of those things that just cannot be valued in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. It is quite unthinkable that we should ever live in a treeless country, and the Forestry Commission, I am glad to see, are making such a state of things quite impossible. I think we should be very grateful to them for that.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, confined his remarks chiefly to Scotland. I would venture to draw your Lordships' attention to the very considerable areas of unplanted felled woodlands and waste areas in England. Certainly, owners are loth to start on long-term policies because of the outlook for the future and the great fall which has taken place in the value of timber, when everything else is going up. We have great hopes that our doubts may be resolved by the departmental committee now sitting. Be that as it may, the land is there, and it needs to be planted. I think that nearly all of us would prefer to see these areas planted by the owners, but if, for various reasons, they are unable to do so, we should wish them to be planted by the Forestry Commission. There is no provision in the 1951 Forestry Act to compel replanting of woodlands felled prior to the passing of that Act. There are, of course, compulsory powers to buy land. I would suggest, however, that that should be the last method to be used if it can possibly be avoided, because, just when the nation is becoming belatedly interested in forestry, it would tend to make forestry in general. and the Commission in particular, unpopular, the more so as there is a feeling amongst uninformed people that the Forestry Commissioner is a sort of bogy man, whereas those of us who know him find him the most helpful and human of mortals.

I wonder whether the nation as a whole has any idea that there is a shortage of land for planting, or that it is of the least moment. I believe that a survey is being made—certainly in some conservancies—of these waste areas, and, when it is ready, I would propose an intensified campaign of education to explain the importance of getting these areas planted. If this failed, after a decent interval and if there was no valid reason why the land should not be planted—and I think there would be very few areas which would not be planted by the owners—I consider it would be fair that public opinion should be invoked and that all waste and plant-able areas of over ten acres should be made known. It could be said, I suppose, that an area of ten acres would be very small beer to the Forestry Commission. Of course it would, and the Commission would prefer blocks of thousands of acres. But beggars cannot be choosers. They want land, and, in any case, we live in an age of mechanical transport.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene in this discussion not in any degree as an expert but because I feel that there should be a voice raised from these Benches as well in support of the plea of the noble Earl who opened the debate that the acquisition of land by the Forestry Commission should be facilitated. As we all know, the perspective, so to speak, of the Commission at the moment is perilously low. The available land, at any rate in the North of England, at the current rate of planting will be used up in a very short time. I have already said that I am not an expert in this matter, and I do not wish to go in detail into the acquisition of land, but I will say this: I think that anyone who has travelled around the country will be convinced that in parts of these islands there is still plenty of land available, if there were the good will and the imagination which would facilitate, instead of, in many subtle ways, obstructing, the acquisition of suitable land by the Forestry Commission. My impression of their works and ways is that they are today very careful in the choice of the land that they endeavour to acquire, and where they have acquired large tracts of land they have taken care to pay due regard to the interests of sheep farming and cattle rearing on that land. It by no means follows that if they get an area of land they must plant up the whole of it. So I support the noble Earl in his plea.

As a non-expert, I should like to put forward a few general arguments in favour of this great work of afforestation. In my opinion—and I think it must be the opinion of anybody who has visited these great forests—the afforestation that has taken place during the last twenty or thirty years is the finest public work done in this country in our generation. The advantages of this great public work are threefold. I would mention, first, the sociological, which was mentioned by the noble Earl who opened the discussion. Afforestation brings population back to the lonely spaces of the country—one can see that in the North of England and in Scotland. The Forestry Commissioners have shown themselves to be extremely enlightened landlords. I venture to think that the new forestry villages are some of the finest examples of community planning in the decade since the war ended. Moreover, to reinforce my tribute to the quality of the Commissioners as good landlords, I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that they do not shut down farms and buildings, or even inns, on the property they acquire. On the contrary, they re-edify them and we see a new countryside emerging where the Forestry Commissioners are at work. If you meet the dwellers in these villages, workers and officers of the Forestry Commissioners, you will see that the Commissioners have provided a way back to the country and to country occupations for a good many people who were misfits in towns. So much for the sociological advantages.

Secondly, afforestation has an advantage from the point of view of national well being and defence. I have seen it stated that during the war 100 million trees were cut down in this country. That is a staggering figure. I have consulted one or two forestry experts to see whether such a figure is conceivable, and I am told that it is extremely likely that that calculation is approximately correct. At any rate, I think your Lordships will agree that the consumption of timber during a period of national emergency is great. In ordinary times we rely upon imports of timber, but in war time that would be bulky cargo, carried in slow ships, and this country could fail for lack of timber. It might be said that if we could cut down 100 million trees during the last war, we must have had some timber resources. Yes, we had, but on a sporadic scale and on the whole, perhaps, not very well cared for. But under this head I am only concerned to make the point that an ample supply of timber is a national necessity, and we are only part of the way to restoring the timber supply which we used up during the war.

The third advantage is that which arises from the point of view of the balance of payments, which is the critical question of our time and upon which all our prosperity may ultimately hang. From the point of view of the balance of payments, it is extremely important that we should have, and be able to exploit, our own home supplies of timber. Imported timber is by no means a cheap commodity. I have not in my head the total value of the annual import, but it has risen immensely in cost since before the war. I can remember the time when one could buy Archangel timber for £12 to £14 a standard. Now I notice, from stray glances at the prices, that it costs something like £90, £100 or £110 a standard; and timber from the North American continent is more expensive still. On balance of payment grounds alone, therefore, we ought to try to eliminate this expensive import. I believe that that is a very important consideration.

That leads up to the general concept of what the Forestry Commissioners are doing and to some questions of technique. For instance, there is the question of whether we should plant in large blocks or limit ourselves to shelter belts. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, for supporting the observations of the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, on that subject, but peppering the country with shelter belts is not a forestry policy: we must plant in large, well-designed forests. I speak as a layman, but I think I am right in saying that we cannot really bring about general forest conditions, with self-regeneration, unless we plant in considerable areas.

There is another and more important reason for large-scale planting. Why has it happened that the importing of foreign timber has become so much the practice in this country and that between the wars, and before the First World War, the English timber business was a dim and feeble affair? Of course, that raises questions of the species that can be grown in this country and so on, but I would tell your Lordships one reason. Unless you have fairly homogeneous blocks of timber, so that you can exploit its felling and its conversion by regular procedures year after year, and offer to the market well-known sizes and dimensions, you cannot have a healthy, prospering, large-scale timber industry. It is because the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Russians and the Finns exploited their forests in that way that they gained the market in this country, because it is so much easier and more convenient to buy imported timber of known sizes and grades, than to mess about with miscellaneous English timber. That was all right for a bit of fencing or joinery in the country, but the timber trade was lost to English forestry because it was not worked in that way.

In the eighteenth century it was worked that way, in a more primitive fashion. There are areas in the Cairngorms where one can still see the relics of the arrangements for floating at that time. The forests at Rothiemurchus were worked systematically and the timber was sold widely. The water pipes in use in London in the eighteenth century were made from trunks of trees brought down from Rothiemurchus. That is an argument for the methods of afforestation and of designing and working forests which have been so successfully inaugurated by the Forestry Commissioners. As these forests begin to come to maturity, already we can see that they are being worked in a systematic way. Give them another ten or fifteen years and we shall find that a properly organised timber trade will have grown up and all the modern industries that go with it, like pulp and paper and board. I think that that makes an irresistible case for the Forestry Commission. It makes a case for their working in the way they have, and for their being given the utmost assistance in acquiring adequate quantities of land. Therefore I feel that the motion of the noble Earl ought to have the support of us all.

I should like to say a word or two on private forestry. I have a small interest as trustee in some woodlands. There we have an example of ancient woods which are lovely but dilapidated, and of little use from a commercial point of view. But there are also sonic woods in the same estate, in the middle of Sussex, which were properly planted and thinned and which bid fair to be a commercial proposition. From common observation it is clear that some proportion of our private woodlands (I do not claim to be an expert on their history), for one reason or another, fell into a stage when they were little more than ornamental; not properly looked after, thinned, felled and generally promoted. We all know that that is not universally true, and we need not go into causes, except that one must agree, as the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, said, that the incidence of taxation has made the future seem rather dim to most people, and planting, at any rate, is a long-term policy.

As regards exploiting these English woodlands and getting something out of them, it was difficult because of the competition of the better organised timber industries overseas. I was glad to hear the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, say—and I believe it to be true—that in recent times, partly because of a change in attitude on the part of the Forestry Commission, the relations between the private owners and the Forestry Commission have become much easier and helpful to both; and I should think things are beating up now to an altogether better climate, as we often say, in regard to private woodlands. Anything more that can be done in that way, both in the rules and regulations, and by concrete assistance, ought to be done, because we need those woodlands as well as anything that the Forestry Commission can plant for us. Perhaps I have taken an undue amount of time at this stage of the evening, but I feel that some views should be expressed from this side of the House to support the noble Earl's timely Motion.

6.13 p.m.


My Lords, I should like just to ask the noble Lord who is to reply a question. Can he make some observation on the matter of forestry in Wales, and particularly in North Wales, a country with which I am familiar and which I remember as a very bleak country—I am thinking of the Caernarvon range and Snowdon, with no trees at all. Is anything being done about that area? On a brief visit a short time ago, when I admit I did not carry out any great exploration, I found nothing there. I hope that in this non-political debate the noble Lord may be able to give some hope of considerable planting in Wales, and particularly North Wales.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will join with me in welcoming this opportunity of discussing once more the important subject of forestry. It is a subject which I believe always commands the interest of your Lordships' House, and it is one on which, as we have heard this afternoon, many of your Lordships speak with great authority as woodland owners. During the course of the debate I have found myself in agreement on many points which have been made by noble Lords who have taken part; so much so that I think if I were to speak at length 1 should only be reinforcing the points they have made, and that might be somewhat tedious to your Lordships. There is no question at all but that an increase in the area of well-managed and maintained plantations is highly desirable. As has been said during the debate, we have a smaller proportion of land devoted to timber production than have such great agricultural countries as Denmark and Holland, yet at the same time we rank high as one of the great consuming timber countries, and we import more than any other country in the world. The great heritage that we had of mature timber—which I may remind your Lordships was almost entirely privately owned—has largely disappeared as the result of the two world wars.

It was against that background that a Committee was set up under the chairmanship of the late Lord Robinson to consider the question of what should be the post-war forest policy of the country. At this point I think I should say, in view of what I gathered from a remark by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, that my information is somewhat contrary to his. My information is that the late Lord Robinson was most keen that private forestry should contribute as much as it possibly could to the whole forestry effort of the country; in fact I think it can be discovered from the records that he went to great lengths to do all possible to assist private owners both by way of advice and also by means of financial grants.

The Committee over which the late Lord Robinson presided recommended that the post-war forest policy of the country should amount to 5 million acres, 3 million to come from new afforestation and 2 million from existing woodlands, and that that programme should be completed by the end of the present century. The rate at which that was to be achieved was far from excessive when it was considered against the background of the country's need, to which reference has been made, but it turned out to be too optimistic when one took into consideration the competing claims during these post-war years in relation to capital, labour and equipment, and also for land. Nevertheless, I can assure your Lordships that it remains a valid estimate of what we ought to aim at, and Her Majesty's Government accept it as such. It is still possible, and still necessary, to complete the programme which was laid down in the White Paper (Cmd. 6447) of June, 1943, but it is not, I fear, likely to be possible to achieve it at quite as rapid a rate as was intended. I would not, however, agree with any suggestion that the aim of post-war policy had been abandoned as being impracticable; all that has happened is that it will not be achieved quite so quickly as had been hoped. I do not want to give your Lordships the impression that either the Government or the Forestry Commission are in any way complacent: the situation does give us cause for considerable concern.

The noble Earl in opening the debate referred to the reserves of plantable land, and your Lordships might like to know that in Scotland the reserve of plantable land has now fallen to 148,000 acres, in England it is 107,000 acres and in Wales 55,000 acres. The noble Lord, Lord Haden-Guest, asked me a question. If he cares to look at the report of the Forestry Commission he will find a great deal of information about what is being done in Wales—perhaps he will forgive me if I do not go into the figures at this point. The figures I have mentioned give us a total of 310,000 acres. In Scotland the planting rate reached 34,000 acres in 1954 and everyone hoped that that acreage would increase. But the Commission, having reviewed this situation in 1953, and in particular having estimated the amount of land which, having regard to existing policy they might expect to be able to acquire, came to the conclusion that the annual planting programme would have to be reduced. I think they were very prudent to do so, for the reserve we now have would have represented just over four years' planting. Your Lordships would agree I am sure that that is far too little to permit planting to proceed in an orderly and efficient manner without bringing about peaks and troughs of employment.

It has thus been necessary to reduce the planting programme throughout Great Britain. For Scotland it will be about 30,000 acres a year. The estimate for the whole country for 1956 is approximately 63,000 acres. In fact the area planted during the forest year which ended on September 30 last shows a small drop from the peak year of 1954. I am quite certain that all your Lordships accept the economic, strategic and social importance of forestry, because it provides increased employment in those very areas, the hill lands of our country, where the flight from the countryside has been most marked. The Government accept with some concern the Commission's decision to reduce the planting rate, and I can assure your Lordships that efforts are continually devoted to finding some means of improving the rate at which the Commission can acquire land.

I should like to refer to the fear of the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, that the reduction in the planting programme would mean a waste of plants. In regard to that matter I am assured by the Forestry Commission that the scale of reduction, which in any case has been foreseen, is not such as to give rise to any great difficulty. Annually there is a substantial demand from the nursery trade for any surpluses that the Commission may have available. My noble friend who opened the debate also drew attention to the unfortunate situation in which adequate areas of plantable land cannot be obtained by the Commission. There are those who are of the opinion that the Commission should plant more of the land that they at present have available, and it is true, as the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, said, that only about half of the total land at the disposal of the Commissioners is in fact planted. Apart from the better quality agricultural land which will not be planted, much of the land is by any standards completely unplantable. For example, it may consist of lochs, bogs or hare rock or land well over the height at which trees can be expected to grow. But a great deal has been done by the Commission to plant land which even a short time ago would have been regarded as completely unplantable.

Improvements in technique and the provision of new and specialised equipment have enabled the Commission to extend the planting line at higher and higher altitudes in recent years and in fact to plant land which even so short a time ago as 1945 would have been regarded as quite incapable of producing any reasonable crop. I think the Commission in these respects deserve our congratulations on the initiative that they have shown. Some people think they have gone too far. There is a school of thought, I am told, which suggests that they are sometimes too optimistic in establishing plantations on land which gives no guarantee whatsoever that in fifty or sixty years' time there will be an economic crop.

My noble friend, Lord Mansfield, also suggested that the Commission could get more land by paying more for it. Of course that is true up to a point, but I do not think it follows that it would be either wise or right for the Commission to start paying more than a fair market value for the land they want. It certainly would not be fair to the taxpayer and I do not know that in the long run it would be fair either to the landowner or to the farmer. After all we do not want to tempt owners or the Commission to grow trees on land that would be better employed in the national interest in producing food, and that would be inevitable if the Commission embarked on a policy of artificially inflating the prices they are prepared to pay. But I would repeat that it is the Commission's policy to pay no more and no less than the fair market price for their land—a price which is arrived at by a process of negotiation between a willing buyer and a willing seller. The noble Earl who opened the debate gave us an example of a negotiation for an area of land for planting on which there was standing timber, and said that in his opinion the price was much too low. I understand that where land is being acquired with standing timber on it, that timber can be reserved for felling by the owner himself, so that one should not really have much difficulty in a case of that kind.

The question and possibility of compulsion as a means of securing for the Commission the land they need was raised. On that subject I do not think I could do better than refer to the comments which were made by my noble friend, Lord Home, when this subject was debated in February of this year. The Government do not rule out the use of compulsion in any individual case where the economic and social circumstances justify it—in other words, where it is the only alternative to the waste of land which everyone is agreed should be used for forestry. But it is indeed our earnest wish that the Commission will not find it necessary, save in exceptional circumstances, to use compulsion for the purchase of land for afforestation. I may say that neither the Commissioners nor the Government regard compulsion as the cure to the troubles arising from a shortage of land. It has also been said during the debate that perhaps we should pay less attention to the objections of the farming community. I do not know that I would go all the way with noble Lords who have mentioned these matters. After all, the farming community, like any other, is entitled to a patient hearing of its views, and moreover it is very rarely that there is no need to make a choice between the often competing needs of food production and forestry. A choice has often to be made, and it seems to me that the claims of each should certainly have equal consideration.

A good deal was said during the course of the debate as to the competition between sheep and timber. Undoubtedly from experience it is known that timber will employ many more men than sheep or even agriculture. I believe the figure given by the noble Earl of one man to 100 acres of timber is fairly accurate. I may say that during a tour I made of the north-west of Scotland during this present summer it was found that where forestry had been started men were actually coming back to a district which they had left a few years before. In fact, employment was being provided for them. The question that arises so often with the farming community is the provision of shelter belts. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Piercy, quite appreciates what is meant by shelter belts in this connection. It is not the belt running along the side of a field that one often sees, perhaps forty to fifty feet broad, but rather a very considerable area of irregular shape, planted on a hillside to enable sheep to get shelter under all conditions of wind and weather. It is something very much larger than people usually visualise when speaking about shelter belts. I am glad to say that nowadays there is a greater acceptance among farmers generally of the need for more forestry and of the great possibilities which can derive from integration of the two activities. It is perfectly true, as was said by the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, that there is a considerable improvement to be seen where shelter belts have been erected.

So far, I have dealt mainly, and indeed almost entirely, with the problems of the Forestry Commission. I do not ignore the very serious problems of private owners. As noble Lords have said, it is not much use encouraging owners to plant more land—and the private owners (this is an answer to what the noble Lord, Lord Piercy, said) have come nearer to achieving the objective set for them in the White Paper than have the Commission themselves, which is satisfactory and something to be proud of—if, when they come to thin or fell their woodlands, they can get no market for their produce or a price which does not recoup their costs.

That leads me to refer to the setting up of building board factories and pulp mills. We all greatly welcome the initiative shown by industrialists in setting up a chipboard factory at Annan in Dumfriesshire, providing a greatly increased market, especially for small-sized thinnings, for owners of woodlands in the Lowlands as well as for the Commission in the considerable area around the factory. Over and above that, the Commission are actively investigating with industrialists the possibility of setting up factories, to use woodland produce, in other parts of the country. I hope that that will be helpful to the North East of England, to Wales and also to Norfolk. It is a most welcome development. It will not, of course, solve all the marketing problems of private owners, and on this subject I would only say that a Departmental Committee is closely engaged at this moment in investigating the problem. In those circumstances, perhaps your Lordships will not expect me to anticipate their Report. which is expected early next year.

It was suggested that there might be an increase in the maintenance grants. It has been suggested, both here and elsewhere, that loans might be provided for private owners. My understanding is that the United Kingdom Forestry Committee intend to make proposals for increases in the type and amount of grant now available. Your Lordships will note that it is the Committee, not the Commission.


May I intervene with a sentence on that point? Something which has surprised me very much in recent years is that the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation seem to give no assistance in the way of loans for the financing and planting of forests. Perhaps that is a quarter where some amelioration of the present arrangements might help forestry.


The noble Lord is referring to loans?




I will come to that matter in a moment. What the United Kingdom Forestry Committee hope to do, as I understand it, is to make proposals for increases in the type and amount of grant now available, but as we have not yet had their Report perhaps I had better not say more now on the subject. In any case, it may be that the Marketing Committee, to which I referred a moment or two ago, will touch on this subject; and we had better await their Report. In relation to loans, I would say to the noble Lord that the owner of any woodland which is either dedicated or managed according to a plan approved by the Commissioners may now obtain a loan, usually on the security of the woodlands. So that source of finance is open to those who dedicate their land under an approved plan. I would end, as I began, by saying that I, and I am sure all your Lordships, welcome this debate. It has been most constructive and helpful. I thank the noble Lords who have taken Fart in it. It has demonstrated again that forestry is a cause which commands great sympathy in your Lordships' House, and is a subject on which there is a considerable measure of sincere agreement.

6.36 p.m.


My Lords, while I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for the fullness of his reply, I am afraid that the Forestry Commission cannot take very much satisfaction from it, as I cannot see any concrete suggestion for remedying this difficulty over the acquisition of land. May I respectfully point out to the noble Lord that I never suggested that the Forestry Commission should pay more for the land which they acquire than its actual value. What I said was that in several cases they have not been willing to pay the present-day value and, therefore, seemed to be living in the past. As regards the reservation of timber, that is all right if the owner is in a position to cut, but in the particular cases that I had in mind, if the owners had reserved the timber, which was of a sufficiently immature nature, they would never have been granted a permit to fell it. That is why they were faced with great difficulty when the Commission offered them for the timber considerably below its value as growing timber.

The hour is late and I do not wish to do much more Iran thank the noble Earls, Lord Haddington and Lord Yarborough, for their support, but I feel that I must make a mild rebuke to the noble Lord, Lord Piercy, for his apparently sweeping condemnation of the private woodland owner. To judge from his remarks, one would have thought there was no properly administered private woodland in the country—which is far from being the case. Even before the Forestry Commission had ever been thought of, there were hundreds of thousands of acres of excellently managed woodland. I would remind the noble Lord that every single bit of timber that was used in the First World War, and all except a very few thinnings used in the Second World War, were there solely as a result of the enterprise of our ancestors.

The noble Lord spoke of timber from Archangel. That is one reason why there were certain neglected woodlands. In the early days of this century my father planted a number of plantations, with the idea of providing pits with pitprops. Those plantations were well looked after and properly thinned; but they were never cut for pitprops. They stood long after that stage, until they were felled during the last war as sawn timber, the reason being that almost up to the outbreak of the last war it was cheaper for the trade to import timber from Archangel by sea than to bring the pitprops from Perthshire by road. That is why it is essential that all Governments in the future should undertake that there will be a market at reasonable prices—we ask no more—for timber produced in this country.

I should like to say one last word about extra employment given by timber. The late Duke of Westminster had a large property in Sutherland, and on that property there were employed, whole-time, one stalker and, part-time, two ghillies. The noble Duke, with the laudable idea of providing employment, put a large amount of the land under forestry and I am assured that at present well over a hundred men have permanent employment there. That may be an extreme case, but I repeat that, where in the Highlands the interests of sheep and forestry clash, it is much to the benefit of the Highlands that forestry should prevail. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.