When environment minister Michael Meacher and forestry minister Elliot Morley visited the Thames Chase Community Forest in Essex in January (TTJ January 27), it was a perfect opportunity to draw attention to one of England’s largest environmental regeneration programmes.

The Thames Chase forest is just one of 12 community forests situated near major urban areas throughout England. The concept is designed to make the forest an integral part of the urban landscape – 1.6 million people live within the boundaries of The Mersey Forest alone – and the forests cover a combined 453,000ha. The aim of the forests, established by the Countryside Agency and the Forestry Commission in partnership with others, including local authorities and the private sector, is to provide wooded areas for recreation, wildlife, education – and timber production. The Mersey Forest, neighbouring Red Rose, and the Forest of Avon have all initiated projects to help to develop the timber potential of their areas, create a local timber economy and provide jobs.

The 96,000ha of The Mersey Forest includes the Forestry Commission’s Delamere Forest but in the private woodlands that help make up the rest of the forest, timber production is minimal – something The Mersey Forest staff are keen to address.

‘Woodlands production is sporadic because it’s not economically viable and because there’s no network to encourage farmers to do it,’ explained Paul Nolan, director of The Mersey Forest.

With this in mind, last year the organisation appointed Gareth Mayhead to the role of timber project officer. His task is to bring together everybody in the supply chain from timber growers and contractors, through to manufacturers.

‘We’re trying to be the catalyst and we have various tools, including grant aid, to provide assistance anywhere in the chain, as long as it’s promoting the use of the local resource,’ said Mr Mayhead.

Grant aid

As Merseyside is identified as an Objective 1 and 2 area by the European Union, The Mersey Forest receives EU grants and these are matched by Littlewoods Organisation. The Forestry Commission also provides funding. Total grant aid amounts to around £250,000 over three years and Mr Mayhead’s own management role provides a service that would otherwise be an expensive outlay for those in the supply chain.

Many farmers are reluctant to devote land to timber and need to be persuaded of the benefits of better estate management and adding value to their land. Farmers also want to know how much woodland will cost them and whether its return equals that of other crops – a difficult figure to measure when an investment in forestry is not realised for some years. This is where the grant aid can help: it can be used to cover the cost of forest management and help plug the gap between the cost of harvesting and the revenue received from timber.

‘Many of these woodlands haven’t been managed since the second world war,’ said Mr Nolan, ‘so we have to do something now or let them go.’

Future markets

And they also have to plan for the future to ensure that there are markets for the woodlands planted today.

‘As we plant more woodlands we have to ask what is going to happen in 10-15 years’ time, where the markets will be. We have to ensure that we’re not planting the under-managed forests of the future,’ said Mr Nolan.

The timber project also looks to take advantage of low transport costs through the development of local markets for timber.

‘We are looking at how to shorten the timber supply chain and give value back to the grower,’ said Mr Nolan. ‘Imports are so competitively priced that we have to look at niche markets and at branding.’

That said, local growers could supply Sonae‘s Challenger chipboard plant at Knowsley if it was financially beneficial.

Mr Mayhead has approached a range of local companies to see whether they would use the timber and the response has been positive. The key is to find products that are viable. To this end, Mr Mayhead is well-qualified for the job: his dissertation for his Masters in Wood Science at Bangor was on the use of low grade timber in Britain. He later joined The BioComposites Centre where his work in wood processing R&D also provided valuable problem-solving experience. ‘I see this timber project officer role as problem-solving as well,’ he said.

The two men acknowledge that there will be ‘quality issues’ with a resource that has been cherry-picked for decades, but it’s a case of identifying appropriate uses.

‘We’re looking to work with people to develop new products, innovative lamination and jointing systems, but it has to be on a small scale – bolt-on things that can be done at sawmills,’ said Mr Mayhead.

The Mersey project can provide technical information through TRADA, and the team holds workshops for local authorities and specifiers to help them to use local timber.

‘People are used to processing imported softwoods; they can’t just switch to processing local timber,’ said Mr Nolan.

While managing the forests for timber, the Mersey Forest staff must ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are protected – and ensure that the public knows this. Mr Nolan acknowledges that the public perception of a managed forest is not always positive and he is keen to educate people about forest management.

‘Cutting down the right tree at the right time for the right reason – that will be an ongoing message of the project,’ he said.

Another aim of the project is to continue planting: a 30-year target to plant 8,000ha will see woodland cover increase by 12%. Already, 1,500ha of woodland have been planted and 1,000ha of other habitat – heathland and grassland – created.

At the Red Rose Forest, the Woodland Industries Network has been established to develop the forestry economy along the entire timber chain. The network is a central point of contact, providing information and offering courses on chainsaw skills, IT and first aid.

‘The ultimate goal is to create local jobs for local people using local resources,’ said Red Rose Forest’s Andrew Urquhart.

And he believes the potential for local timber is ‘massive’: when Red Rose Forest asked end users if they would use local timber, 90% said yes. The catch is, ‘it has to be the right quantity and quality’, but this is where the Woodland Industries Network can help get the impetus going.

‘As we develop more markets, more land will be brought into management and as more forests are managed, more material will become available and the quality will increase,’ said Mr Urquhart.

The marketing co-op developed by the Forest of Avon includes about 20 people and, with funding from the Countryside Agency, there are plans to appoint a part-time wood products marketing officer. The co-op brings together timber growers and local users from craftspeople to a timber frame supplier, and a wood yard provides a place to store, convert and dry timber as well as for people to work together. Projects manager Jim O’Shaughnessy identifies this diversity as one of the co-op’s strengths. ‘The remit is quite wide,’ he said. ‘Everybody is using different types of material at different points along the timber chain.’

The goal is to make use of timber, largely hardwoods, that at present goes to wood pulp or perhaps even landfill and in the process encourage better forest management.

Marketing potential

Mr O’Shaughnessy realises the co-op is ‘not going to change the planet overnight’ but the regular arrival of timber imports at the nearby Port of Bristol is a constant reminder of the potential of local woodlands. ‘It seems crazy [to import] when we have a resource on our doorstep,’ he said and the Avon forest’s proximity to large urban areas means there is ‘massive marketing potential’.

All products are sold with a label stating that the timber originated from the Forest of Avon and Mr O’Shaughnessy hopes this will become a valuable marketing tag. ‘We want local labelling to be sought after. Companies like B&Q want FSC-certified timber but we hope they will value local certification as well. He also plans to develop the label to include more detailed information, including a map pinpointing the area where the wood was grown. This would encapsulate the essence of the various community forest timber projects.

‘It would give the message that the wood comes from a sustainably managed forest and that the public has access,’ he said.