A conservation charity is warning that a growing trend of businesses buying land across the UK to offset their carbon footprints could create “ecological dead zones”.
The John Muir Trust says that planting dense conifers on an industrial scale can harm habitats and create more carbon in some cases.
Large investment companies have been buying farms across the country for afforestation – planting trees – to offset carbon emissions.
A recent report by the Scottish Land Commission revealed that in the past year, half of estates in Scotland were sold to corporate bodies, investment funds or charitable trusts.
Land prices have soared, pricing local people out of the market.
In Wales, a committee is calling for a register of all land in the country bought by big companies for tree planting over fears farmers will not longer be able to afford land.
“We do not believe that it is in the public interest to see a new spread of densely planted Sitka spruce plantations across Scotland’s hillsides,” the John Muir Trust said.
“Sitka grow fast and can provide low-carbon timber to replace plastic and steel for a range of products, so will remain a component of our forests for the foreseeable future. But when planted on an industrial scale, with no other tree species to provide diversity, their dense canopies shut out daylight and turn the land they occupy into ecological dead zones. And when sited on unsuitable soils, they can release decades of stored carbon into the atmosphere during planting and felling.
“Carbon funding needs to be done properly and managed in a way that will instill public and community confidence.
“By putting in place a robust framework, the Scottish Government could help steer rural Scotland into a transformational new era with land at the heart of ecological, climate and economic regeneration.”
It is calling on the Scottish government to create a gold-standard accreditation scheme for carbon offsetting which will assess the real net emissions and biodiversity improvements.
Scottish minister Peter Peacock has urged the government to spend the £700 million ($870m) it received from ScotWind to build wind farms on buying estates to ensure land was protected for communities to provide jobs.
“Prices being paid for land are eye-watering and may be beyond the reach of local people even if they knew the land was available for sale,” he told the Press and Journal newspaper.
“This is possible because of a completely unregulated market for land sales in Scotland.
“It seems clear this is a dysfunctional, failed and still failing land market which benefits only the super-rich.”
Land Reform Minister Mairi McAllan has said the government is seeking to create “a more diverse pattern of land ownership,” meaning more community-owned land or land held for the public good by the public sector.
She said the land should “absolutely” be used to mitigate climate change, but only in a way that people support.