HARKING back ever-so-many years, my university professor remains a vivid if enigmatic influence on me.

My interest in forests and trees predates even his contribution to my subsequent career in the woods. It’s hard to think how an urban youth with very little rural or silvicultural background can have embraced what was in those early days after WWII a minority activity, but one which established itself as a national priority.

Life was simpler then. Apart from an occasional spat about compulsory purchase with the farming community, the newly nascent Forestry Commission pushed its head down and got on with it. Production of timber was all it was about. A well-intentioned landowner might plant some oaks or even a little beech, but this was all for fun and to provide ground cover for pheasants.


To return to academic life, my prof was something of an eccentric. His formative years had been spent in India, and his lectures were interspersed with Hindi vocabulary which was a ready source of lampoonery among his students. But he knew his stuff. That is, so long as he stuck to Pinus longifolia ... or was it roxburghii? We all respected his knowledge and experience, but his academic background sometimes fell short of what might be expected of such a learned person.

Since my undergraduate days, my contact with the academic world has taught me to look on the occasional contribution made by academics to some political or technical argument with a degree of cynicism. It’s rarely telling to put a professor of anything in charge of proceedings. That is, if you want a broad opinion based on experience rather than a narrow academic view. What is it I hear you saying? Do you remember Professor Rhys Jones, Head of the School of Post-Druidical Botany, late of the University of Salisbury Plain, who used to grace this column 50 years ago? A good example of the phrase ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. I wonder what happened to him.

So, it comes as no surprise that the current discussion (if that is the right description of the report described in last month’s Journal) should have an academic rather than a practical, pragmatic basis.

I refer to the Edinburgh report, whatever it might call itself. The dominant thread running through it proposes that forestry in Scotland should be motivated not by commerce but for environmental and social benefits, ignoring timber production altogether.

For goodness sake, here comes good old academia raising its hoary head once again. To which are added the voices – no doubt a male voice choir – of protest from Welsh farmers. “No farms, no food,” they chorus. Wales used to be hailed as the powerhouse and garden of UK forestry. Trees and plantations blossomed in the warm, wet climate and fertile soils.

At some not-too-far-distant point in time, policy review builders will be ticketing the Welsh government with the chant: “No trees, no timber, no timber, no houses!”

It will be too late by then. No good consulting the university.

Forestry Journal: Professor Ian Wall, who chaired the group of academics behind the RSE's report Professor Ian Wall, who chaired the group of academics behind the RSE's report (Image: FJ/John McNee)

So, this diary sticks to its guns, nails its colours to the mast. Of all the benefits arising from managed forests – and as we all know there are many – forests having clear motivation and support are most certain to deliver.

The idea that large areas of tatty woodlands with no intrinsic value, browsed by deer and destroyed by grey squirrels, can succeed in land-use terms, or indeed by any other criteria, can only come from academia. The sooner such thinking can be consigned to the dustbin of history the better. And dustbins will be made of wood by then, I expect.

Over the years there have been a variety of government forest policies, but the one alarming feature has been a slow but inexorable rise of environmental arguments which continue to bedevil any clear path forward.

At least we are having a debate, but it seems that this debate is once again being initiated and conducted by the other side. Time for a change, don’t you think?