MORE than half of the newly planted Scots pine at BrewDog’s much-vaunted Lost Forest are dead – with the smaller mixed native broadleaf area suffering a “very high mortality” of 95%, it has been revealed.

Campaigners claim the Scottish Forestry figures raise questions about the governance of its grants system and whether it is in the public interest to give money to private companies to plant trees for carbon offsetting.

The former sporting estate of ­Kinrara near Aviemore was bought by BrewDog for £8.8 million in 2020 with founder James Watt pledging to restore the former sporting estate to its former glory.

The brewing company promised to create “the biggest-ever” woodland in the Highlands to help the ­regeneration of Scotland’s ancient forest after acquiring land near Aviemore.

However, criticism began when tree-planting did not begin until 2022 after a funding grant from Scottish Forestry. The total grant for the Lost Forest’s phase one is £1.2m. To date, £690,000 has been paid as part of the Forestry Grant Scheme contract.

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BrewDog has boasted that 500,000 trees have now been planted but a site inspection by Scottish Forestry in September found an estimated 56% of the Scots pine have perished, with “very high mortality” of 95% within the mixed native broadleaf option area. Scottish Forestry did not count the survival rate among birch which were almost half the trees planted.

However, campaigner Nick ­Kempe of Parkswatch Scotland recently ­visited the site and said many birch had died and in places it looked as though at least 90% of newly planted Scots pine had died.

“High up, there were dead planted pine everywhere and I couldn’t find a single live sapling although there were a couple of naturally ­regenerated ­saplings in the undisturbed parts of the heather,” he said.

“If the route we took was in any way representative, it did look to me like at least 90% of the planted Scots Pine may well have died.

“If BrewDog’s grand plan was to raise money in future by selling ­carbon credits through the ­woodland and peatland code, a large part of that plan would now appear to be in ­tatters.”

The National: Nick Kempe says more scrutiny needs to be applied to projects such as BrewDog's Lost Forest before handing over grant moneyNick Kempe says more scrutiny needs to be applied to projects such as BrewDog's Lost Forest before handing over grant money

Kempe added: “All of this ­reinforces the argument that before anyone is ­allowed to buy large areas of land in our National Parks they should be ­required to show how they will ­manage the land in a way that meets statutory objectives – ­including sustaining local communities – and how they would finance this.

“Had BrewDog been required to ­undergo such tests, it might never have bought Kinrara.”

The practice of handing out grants to plant trees in order to sell ­carbon credits is blamed by ­protesters for driving up the price of land, ­making it even more out of reach for ­community buyouts.

Planting on peat means it takes years before the trees that do survive begin to replace the carbon released in the planting process.

The recent decision by Scottish ­Forestry to cut the grant fund by £31.8m to £45.3m has led to an ­outcry from the forestry industry but Kempe said it should be welcomed.

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“The forestry grant system has not been fit for purpose for years,” he said. “The problem is that government ministers have seen tree-planting as imperative so what they have done is give lots of money to plant trees and trees are being planted without any regard to the consequences.

“They are still planting on peat less than 50cms deep so they have been funding all these schemes on peat, putting more carbon into the ­atmosphere, not less.”

Kempe said research showed that it would take at least 15 years before new trees would start to recover the carbon lost through soil disturbance during planting.

“You have to add in that trees blow down as we are getting more and more gales, there are always trees ­diseases and there is a risk of fire in dry summers so the whole thing is a very risky venture,” he said.

Instead, Kempe argued, deer ­numbers should be cut in order for the landscape to regenerate naturally with minimal disturbance to soil.

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“Everyone wants more woodland but if you put money into reducing deer numbers, nature will do the job,” he said.

A spokesperson for Scottish ­Forestry said a routine site inspection at Kinrara had noted that the full range and number of trees planted were as expected.

“However, we did note that there was high mortality of pine species – we estimated up about 56% not ­surviving at that point,” said a spokesperson. “This level of loss is of course higher than expected, however the public purse is fully protected.

“As part of the Forestry Grant Scheme conditions, the owner is ­required to replant the failed sections at their own expense. If this replanting doesn’t take place then we can reclaim any grant monies given.”

The spokesperson added: “All woodland creation schemes that receive Forestry Grant Scheme funding are subject to legally binding conditions and routine inspections which ensure that public funds are properly used. Each woodland creation application is subject to very detailed assessments where soils, location and other factors are taken into account.”

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The figure of 95% failure for the mixed native broadleaf option area was given in an answer to a Freedom of Information request seen by the Sunday National.

Alan McDonnell, head of ­nature restoration at Trees for Life, said ­natural regeneration of native ­woodlands was one of the best tools in tackling climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.

“What’s more, huge areas of ­Scotland could support naturally ­regenerating trees – with minimal disturbance to carbon in the soil and avoiding issues such as the wrong trees being planted in the wrong ­places,” he said. “To enable the nature-led expansion of woodlands, browsing pressure from herbivores needs to be at a level where enough new tree seedlings can become established.

“Working with and supporting deer managers to deliver the conditions where this can happen at scale is a far more sustainable way to restore nature and maintain livelihoods than Scotland’s historic dependence on tree-planting grants.”

A BrewDog spokesperson said: “The Lost Forest is one of the largest reforestation and peatland restoration projects the UK has seen, restoring and preserving the beauty of the Kinara Estate for the people of Scotland to enjoy for generations to come.

The National:

“We partnered with Scottish Woodlands to plan and deliver on a five-year peatland restoration and woodland creation programme. We undertook extensive environmental and ecological surveys and worked with community groups such as the Cairngorms National Park and Monadhliath Deer Management Group to ­develop a plan that is sympathetic to the ­surrounding environment, fauna, and wider ­ecosystem.

“So far, we have restored 725 acres of peatland and planted more than 790 acres of new woodland, with more peatland restoration and new woodland planting in the pipeline.

“As with all woodland projects, there is always a proportion of trees that will fail. Scots Pine is one of 11 species planted and was ­disproportionately affected by the ­unseasonably long hot and dry spell we saw in June last year. We will be replacing trees that didn’t flourish in full ­compliance with the requirements of Scottish Forestry and to ­ensure our new woodland establishes.

“When all phases of the tree-planting and peatland restoration are complete, the Lost Forest has the potential to sequester up to one million tonnes of carbon over the next 100 years.

“Both the peatland and ­woodland projects are registered under the ­respective UK woodland and ­peatland carbon codes. The project is independently audited through a ­rigorous monitoring, reporting and verification methodology developed by Forest Research and the Woodland Carbon Code.”