A Walk In The Forest
14 February, 2010
The mobile rang at six am as promised, so struggling past the thickets of red roses and tasteless, glittering pink hearts cluttering up my hallway (not!) I made it out of the door and through a light blizzard to join my friend Julie in her Bentley. As we purred our way down the M4 to Heathrow, Julie explained how she had come by the Scottish forest we were going to visit. A long story involving pre-nups, gifts inter vivos, divorces and so on. Upshot, a tax-efficient forest, which had been hers since the previous Wednesday, and she couldn't wait to see it.
"In Invernesshire, in February?" I protested. Julie explained how the gulf stream makes northern Scotland warmer than Devonshire, but I don't think she believed it any more than I did. It took us all day to get to the hotel in Inverness, so we had plenty of time to bone up on forestry with Julie's Blackberry. Lots of countries have tax breaks for forests, it turns out: the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, for instance.
It's the ultimate green tax shelter, you'd think? You buy land that has just been planted with trees (or you can buy shares in a company that does so) and thirty years later you or your descendants can sell it without paying capital gains tax; and in some countries including the UK there are government grants to pay for planting and upkeep.
The agent joined us for breakfast the next morning. Luckily for Julie, who is Persian by origin and has problems with the accent of London cab-drivers, never mind Robbie Burns sound-alikes, Hamish spoke perfect Oxford English. That's true of much of northern Scotland, I found out later. Clambering into Hamish's towering 4 x 4, and equipped by the hotel with vacuum flasks and sandwiches, we set off through light snow towards the forest. The road was along a narrow valley, in company with a railway track and a stream, the three of them constantly intersecting, with road and railway now on one bank of the stream, now the other. It was very picturesque, with the forested hills towering above us on either side of the valley, more white than green. Occasionally the sun came out and you could see the tops of the mountains, but most of the time they were lost in swirling, snowy mists. I wished I was back in London, but Julie was on a high.
"It's so beautiful," she kept saying.
After an hour or so, just at a railway station with an improbable name like Lochrothiepethray, we turned off the highway and began the ascent to Julie's forest.
"If the snow was much worse we wouldn't be able to get there," said Hamish helpfully. Eventually he stopped the car (tank) on a knoll and pointed ahead to a vista of serried pines stretching in all directions, covering a series of undulating hills. "You can see about half of it from here," he said. "There is about 400 acres altogether."
The trees were in rows, the way the Forestry Commission usually does it, all the same height, about fifteen feet, with occasional rides which break up the monotonous effect to some extent. I could see from Julie's face that this blank landscape didn't at all chime with her romantic imaginings of 'forest', some amalgam of Hansel and Gretel, beech-woods in Surrey and horror movies set in New England.
"Can we walk in it, a bit?" she asked rather uncertainly. So we did. We walked up and down one of the rides in a couple of inches of snow, while Hamish explained that the forest was about half-grown, and would be ready for felling in fifteen years' time. "The trees will be thirty feet by then," he said encouragingly. 'Still all the same,' I could hear Julie thinking to herself.
Blessedly soon, we were back in the tank, gliding down towards the station, sucking for dear life on the coffee flasks, which the hotel had thoughtfully fortified with local single malt.
"There's a problem," said Hamish suddenly, drawing to a halt in a lay-by at the side of the road. "It's overheating. We're not going to make it back to town. I'll have to call for help." There was no signal on the mobiles, so in a tense silence we free-wheeled down the remaining couple of miles to the station, just making it up a short incline to the station car park.
There was a signal again, now, so Hamish got to work on his phone.
"Maybe there's a train," ventured Julie. Hamish merely grunted, but Julie and I went onto the platform and found a timetable. It was in very small type, and hard to decipher, but we thought there should be a train in an hour's time. At the bottom of the sheet, though, in large letters, was the emphatic announcement: 'UNLESS DIFFERENT'. That was the only time we laughed all day.
Hamish's friend, Malcolm, turned up before any train, in another cross-country monster, and we were back at the hotel in time for lunch. Hamish and Malcolm excused themselves: "We have to fix the jeep," they said.
The very next day, as it would happen, I saw a report in a tax newsletter that an Australian academic had criticized forestry schemes for reducing the land and water available to food growing, although this hardly seemed to apply to Julie's forest: 'Government assistance to forestry and logging is equivalent to 42% of the industrys unassisted value added; tax-based subsidies through plantation managed investment schemes are estimated to make up 77% of the assistance.'
So that's forests for you. Remote, boring, cold and not even green. Tax-efficient, of course. After that, when Julie talked about her forest among friends, I could tell that she was imagining her dream forest, not the daunting reality on that Scottish mountainside.
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