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Speyside Community Council rail against plans by London-headquarted company Gresham House to cover Rothes Glen in sitka spruce

By Lewis McBlane

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LOCALS are fighting plans for new woodland on the Glen of Rothes which would uproot farmers.

The Glen Of Rothes Trout Fishery, with a hillside that could soon see new trees..Picture: Daniel Forsyth..
The Glen Of Rothes Trout Fishery, with a hillside that could soon see new trees..Picture: Daniel Forsyth..

Speyside Community Council is opposing plans for a 430 hectare woodland spread across both sides of the A941 between Elgin and Rothes.

The woodland would be nearly all sitka spruce, with some commercial scots pine and a small percentage of broadleaves.

Under the plans, proposed by Scottish Woodlands on behalf of London-headquartered asset management company Gresham House, two tenant farmers would lose their land.

Community council member Donald McLean said: "The proposal as it stood just wasn't on."

In their document reacting to the plans, Speyside Community Council said: "We find it devastating to learn that two local tenant farmers in the Glen will have their livelihoods severely affected, taking employment away from families and workers in the area.

"The plan states that the forestry will create jobs, but this should mean an overall increase in employment.

"Jobs already exist in farming on the estate, but farmers are losing their grazing and cropping ground with no power to resist.

"Farming is a very important local industry, and we feel that agricultural soil is an irreplaceable national resource and once planted with trees it will be lost forever."

Marion Ross, a Rothes Glen resident and chairwoman of the community council, spoke about the development from her personal perspective.

She said: "If this proposal goes through, there will be no farmers in the Glen of Rothes.

"The driving force is to plant as many trees as they can, for profit alone.

"It is the wholesale taking of agricultural land. There is a whole human ecosystem in the glen which Gresham is going to destroy with this.

"There have been agricultural people here for years. The proposal is a desecration really."

The proposals argue that the plans would increase biodiversity, as currently-isolated areas of woodland could be joined up, however community council members disputed this.

Mr McLean said: "At the moment, the plans are almost a throwaway piece of work.

"The proposal as it related to wildlife was absolute rubbish.

"There are things like wildcat and other vulnerable species in the area and the proposal said nothing about it.

"A full Environment Impact Assessment would be our strong preference, so qualified personnel can have a look."

Ms Ross said: "These plans, as they are, would destroy whole habitats if they were planted thick with sitka spruce.

"The whole beautiful hillside would all be commercial forestry.

"From Elgin, the glen is the gateway to speyside. As you come in it is a beautiful open space, but with the proposal it will just be dark trees either side of the road.

"It will just become a dark green tunnel."

Currently, the development plan has limited answers to concerns over habitat loss, with the Scottish Woodlands proposal saying only: "wildlife records show a variety of species present within the vicinity of the scheme. Surveys will be carried out prior to operations taking place to minimise disturbance."

Community council members also took aim at the morality of Gresham House's business model, which involves afforesting large areas to benefit private investors.

On their website, Gresham House advertises that: "In the UK, under current taxation laws, commercial forestry has the added incentive of being a highly tax-efficient investment for individuals: there is 100% relief from inheritance tax (after a two-year qualifying period), no income tax payable when selling the timber, and no capital gains tax on the increase in value of the trees."

The leaked 2017 Paradise Papers also link Anthony Townsend an Isle of Man firm, an arrangement which some have used previously to minimise tax bills.

There is no suggestion though, from any person contacted that Gresham House is involved in any illegal tax evasion.

The community council report reads: "We calculate that your client will benefit from forestry grants of approximately £2.2 million pounds paid by the taxpayer.

"Your client will also benefit from very generous tax concessions on land and forestry.

"If there is to be funding for forestry, then it should be thoughtfully integrated into the rural area for the benefit of the local residents.

"We feel the public and our communities must be able to have their say on this proposal as it affects us all."

Ms Ross repeated criticisms of Gresham's business model, referencing investments in the company by the Scottish Government.

She said: "Its, from our point of view, a moral issue too.

"Gresham House has had £50 million of our money invested in it from the Scottish National Investment Bank, effectively just to make them richer by paying hardly any tax while people are struggling.

"There was a debate in Holyrood as well, I think Labour wanted to ban the Scottish National Investment Bank from doing business with tax avoidance companies, which the SNP and Tories voted down.

"This is in the public domain.

"The whole thought behind it is: buy land; plant trees; make money for investors; then take tax concessions for which we all are paying."

Moving forwards, however, the community council members say they are happy to work constructively with Scottish Woodlands and Gresham House.

To secure the council's assent, amended proposals will have to change the location of the planting.

Mr McLean said: "The bottom line is if it was in the periphery of the area, we would not protest.

"There cannot be any planting in the floor of Rothes Glen or on good agricultural land.

"We are very careful to say that this is specifically not a protest against commercial forestry.

"Lots of folk are employed in forestry here, but also in agriculture. It is all about balance."

Ms Ross said: "The first thing we got through the letterbox was notice of the intention to create the woodland, there was no prior communication at all, no consultation.

"That is just not the way it should be done.

"There has always been commercial forestry in the area – we are not against forestry – but we are against the wholesale taking of our land.

"A representative of Scottish Woodlands said five to 10 jobs would be created at the start of the project, which would then decrease to two jobs when it came time to harvest. "

Despite the council's frustration, Mr McLean was hopeful about the potential for a positive outcome.

He said: "There is an opportunity here. There is something for everyone and you can have your cake and eat it.

"If it was done well, it could be a model of how to do it. It would do everyone good."

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