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For the sake of peat! A tree-planting campaign popular with celebrities has actually made climate change worse, a new study shows

By Mark Howarth for The Scottish Mail On Sunday

17:59 June 29, 2024, updated 18:00 June 29, 2024

  • Terry Wogan, Phil Collins and Cliff Richards were among those who saved a fortune by using the program as a tax break
  • Now scientists say the initiative has disturbed ancient peat bogs in northern Scotland and released huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

A program that gave celebrities and other investors tax breaks by planting trees has resulted in the release of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, experts say.

Television presenter Terry Wogan and pop stars Phil Collins and Cliff Richard were among those who saved a fortune by planting conifers on peatland they bought in the far north of Scotland.

But the British government’s program disturbed ancient peatlands in the flow country of Caithness and Sutherland, where carbon had been stored for thousands of years.

Now scientists have calculated that the project, which ran in the 1980s and ended in 1993, probably contributed to climate change by releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases.

The study – which is yet to undergo peer review – was led by Tom Sloan, an expert at the University of Leeds, in collaboration with the universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, York and the Highlands & Islands, and Midlothian-based Forest Research.

Terry Wogan was among the celebrities who invested in the program to get a tax break
The tree planting project disturbed ancient peat bogs in Caithness and Sutherland

Scientists comparing soil samples from eight Flow Country plantations estimated that there was a net loss of carbon at six sites and a net gain at two sites.

The researchers explained: “In the UK, tax incentives have contributed to rapid and large-scale afforestation of naturally treeless, deep peatlands that would otherwise not have been financially attractive to forestry and were generally not planted commercially.”

The tax incentive was introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government to accelerate tree planting and job creation in rural areas.

This enabled taxpayers with the highest payroll tax rate – 60 percent at the time – to claim depreciation on the creation of forests, which also resulted in subsidies.

They then sold the mature forests to state ownership and also made a tax-free profit.

One area that was used was the Flow Country, a vast pristine peatland estimated to store 400 million tonnes of carbon. One-sixth of this – 172,000 acres – was drained and planted.

Investors included snooker world champions Steve Davis and Alex Higgins. Michael Forsyth MP – later Secretary of State for Scotland – complained in the House of Commons in 1987 that his party’s policies had inadvertently created “a new generation and class of absentee landlords, consisting of pop stars (and) snooker players”.

When the National Audit Office raised doubts as to whether taxpayers were actually getting their money, the incentive was removed.

Terry Wogan invested £115,000 in the project in 1985, purchasing 1,430 acres of Flow Country peatland.

He sold his three properties a decade later, making a profit of around £57,000 – the only part of the deal on which he had to pay tax.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh recently published a report on Scottish forestry policy and called for a review of subsidies.

Professor Ian Wall, chair of the inquiry, said: “Tree planting in the Flow Country was the result of landowners seeking significant tax benefits, which resulted in significant damage to biodiversity in the area and, as this inquiry shows, a net increase in carbon in the atmosphere.”

“Deep peat forests need to be removed and restoration work undertaken in the Flow Country and elsewhere.”

Scottish Forestry stated that modern plantings are “carefully and thoroughly assessed against strict environmental protection regulations”.

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