A FURIOUS forestry row has erupted in a bid to block rich businessmen turning much of the Ettrick Valley into a tree plantation - and taking advantage of lucrative Government hand-outs.
Almost a third of the scenic valley south of Selkirk is already covered with commercial forestry.
And a further two bids to plant extensive hill farms have already been submitted with scoping for a third in the pipeline.
Planting protection was brought in as an emergency measure last year after concerns were raised by locals.
But fresh proposals for a new five-year Scottish Borders Woodland Strategy will stump any safeguards.
Last week the local authority's Infrastructure Committee narrowly voted through officer recommendations to lift Ettrick's 'sensitive status'.
Selkirkshire Councillor Vicky Davidson, who lives in the Ettrick Valley, attacked the move.
She told the Border Telegraph: "Nobody anticipated the explosion of commercial on the back of Government grants when the first Woodland Strategy was put together - rightly, sensitive status was added for the Ettrick Valley when we realised what was going on.
"There are companies who are going door to door in the Ettrick Valley offering inflated prices for the farms to allow investors to come in and plant commercial forests. The only protection the Ettrick Valley has is the 'sensitive status' - and now they want to lift it.
"We have rich businessmen and investors complaining because they have bought farms to plant." Scottish Borders Council began its review of the Woodland Strategy in 2011 following concerns over its effectiveness in relation to new planting applications.
Fears for the Ettrick Valley from commercial forestry were first raised back in the late 1960s when the Scottish Office had to step in and prevent further planting.
The BBC made a documentary, When the Trees Grow Tall, about the plight of the traditional hill farmers.
But the introduction of forestry grants from Holyrood has seen fresh demand for the remote fields and hillsides.
Councillor Davidson added: "It is ironic that the Ettrick Valley is being targeted again.
"Four farms have already gone to forestry and another two are ready to be planted if the sensitive status is lifted - how many others will follow?" The Scottish Government have set a woodland creation target of 100,000 hectares over the next 10 years - with lucrative grants to encourage planting.
Both Drycleuchlea and Nether Phawhope in the upper Ettrick Valley have live applications submitted for large scale commercial forestry.
And once the 'sensitive status' is lifted for the area they will be allowed to progress.
Principal landscape officer Jim Knight said: "It seems reasonable to remove the sensitive status as it was just a temporary measure. If it was continued, the likely response from applicants would be, why?" The new Woodland Strategy map, as proposed by the local authority, will see the 'sensitive status' for the Ettrick Valley replaced by partly 'preferred' and 'potential' status.
Department director Rob Dickson told Thursday's meeting: "If members of the committee wanted to continue the temporary sensitive status, we'd have to go back to the consultees. We have to provide a policy which we can sustain arguments against applicants." Infrastructure Committee chairman Gordon Edgar led the vote, which was narrowly successful, in favour of the Woodland Strategy proposals.
But the Border Telegraph understands the debate will be heard at a full meeting of Scottish Borders Council, following support from senior councillors for a call in, with a further vote possibly being taken.