As governments, both national and local, continue to play the sustainable development card the forest products industry is figuring more highly on the political agenda. This was particularly evident in the heart of Wales last month when the Welsh Timber Forum (WTF) hosted the Wales Forestry Debate. Wales returns to the polls on May 1 to elect the National Assembly and the debate at Llandrindod Wells provided each of the major political parties with an opportunity to address the forest industry and outline their forestry policies.

The first Assembly elections in 1999 were similarly preceded, an exercise which contributed to two of the speakers being elected and gave rise to both the WTF and the Wales Woodland Forum.

The political representations were made against a scene painted by David Sulman, executive director of the UK Forest Products Association, in his “state of the market” address.

Mr Sulman told the meeting that, of the 230,000ha of forests and woodlands in Wales, about half was managed by Forest Enterprise on behalf of the Assembly. “These forests produce about 1.3 million m3 of wood per year,” he said. “Almost all of the wood produced in the forests of Wales is processed here, with some 4,500 jobs provided, mostly in rural areas – all the more important given the changing face of agriculture. These quality jobs inject about £61m of disposable income into the economy. The value of the Welsh forestry industry is estimated to be £400m per year.”

He reminded those present that in order for the forests to be able to deliver the much sought-after benefits to society – recreation, wildlife habitats and so on – “there has to be a thriving and profitable wood processing industry to produce the finance”.

Holistic approach

In adding that it was essential to establish markets for all the products that a tree provided, Mr Sulman encouraged the political candidates to adopt an holistic approach. He explained, for example, that markets for small roundwood and sawmill co-products had been squeezed by the upsurge in use of recycled material.

“As long as there are government incentives to encourage recycling of wood, the displacement of virgin fibre… from its traditional markets will continue and it will have an even greater and more harmful impact on the wood processing, harvesting and timber haulage sector and on the grower’s ability to manage their woodlands so that they continue to deliver the objectives outlined in the Wales Woodland Strategy,” said Mr Sulman.

“For every log entering a sawmill, some 40-50% of it emerges as a sawmill co-product; sawdust, wood chips and bark. For the first time the development of the sawmilling industry is being jeopardised by constraints on the co-product markets. The challenge today is not so much the markets for sawn wood but the markets for small roundwood and sawmill co-products. We cannot sell one without the others.”

He also outlined the potential of wood fuel but warned that “government policy must be realistic and provide timescales that would justify investment by the electricity generating industry”.

Severe pressure

Mr Sulman said that every link in the forest products supply chain was under severe pressure. The industry had made huge improvements in operational efficiency and had reduced costs but many factors were in government hands – such as the climate change levy and the increase in National Insurance contributions.

Delyth Evans AM, the National Assembly’s deputy minister for rural affairs, culture and environment, said the Labour-led Assembly had made significant progress on forestry issues in its four years of existence. Its recognition of “the importance of forestry to our economy and to our wider well-being here in Wales” had culminated in the first strategy for trees and woodland, Woodland for Wales, she said.

If elected for a second term Labour policy would focus on four areas. It would encourage the use of woodlands as catalysts for regenerating local communities; explore the potential for tourism, recreation and health; and “sustain skilled woodworking jobs… by encouraging entrepreneurship”.

&#8220For the first time the development of the sawmilling industry is being jeopardised by constraints on the co-product markets. The challenge today is not so much the markets for sawn wood but the markets for small roundwood and sawmill co-products”

David Sulman, executive director, UK Forest Products Association

Woodland strategy

Welsh Labour would also implement a different woodland management strategy. “There is a strong case for moving away from single-aged plantations and the use of clear-felling,” said Ms Evans. “Welsh Labour will move to a greater use of continuous cover system and find new sites for trees and woodland. Our aim is to convert at least half of the National Assembly’s woodlands to continuous cover over the next 20 years.”

In presenting the Liberal Democrat view, Mick Bates AM said that “forestry and woodland policy must be integrated into co-ordinated efforts to regenerate the rural economy”.

He said his party would continue to support rapid progress towards continuous cover systems consistent with the Wales Woodland Strategy; increase emphasis on restoration and creation of native woodland; give special status to ancient semi-natural woodlands; and ensure that, by 2025, most trees under the Assembly’s ownership should be of native origin.

It also intended, he said, to maintain a sustainable supply of timber for industries, develop a forest industries cluster, increase the use of timber in sustainable building and help develop awareness of biomass energy options.

Conservative candidate Albie Fox said that his party wanted Welsh woodland cover to be extended to match the European average and believed that “farm woodland grant schemes have the potential to make farms more wildlife-friendly”. The party also wanted woodlands to become more accessible.


Referring to the barrage of questions regarding the issue of continuous cover which rained down on Delyth Evans and Mick Bates, Mr Fox concluded that consultation with industry had not been comprehensive enough, promising “we are prepared to listen”.

Plaid Cymru representative Rhodri Glyn-Thomas AM agreed that the audience’s response to the representations indicated that while politicians had obviously consulted industry on how to add value, it had not consulted it enough on its long-term development. Although he blamed the Welsh Assembly for “not listening enough”, he also put some of the blame at the timber industry’s door: “If something is missing from our policies then you haven’t lobbied us enough”.

Plaid Cymru would aim for 50% of new planting to be broadleaves and for 50% of the Assembly’s estate to be broadleaf by 2020. In addition, it would seek to ensure all planted ancient woodland be returned to native species by the same date. However, Mr Glyn-Thomas acknowledged the concerns of delegates regarding species mix: “I had been told that we should invest in hardwood, but I’m now hearing that Welsh hardwood may have some quality issues and that this may not be practical… It is not up to the government to decide what trees you grow – it is your commercial choice. It is up to the government to create an atmosphere in which you can do that.”

The consensus among delegates was that the politicians had grasped the issues of public access and civic amenity values rather more firmly than they had those of the commercial challenges. And it was considered that the policies favouring continuous cover would be damaging. Tim Kirk of the Forestry & Timber Association said: “It is simply not practically possible to convert to continuous cover by 2025. We’ll end up with succession birch, which won’t feed anyone. This [Liberal Democrat] policy will be doing everyone out of business.”

And, subsequent to the debate, David Sulman commented: “The apparent obsession with continuous cover forestry and replacement of commercial conifer plantations by native species, including broadleaves, is utterly misguided. I have yet to speak to anyone in our industry who believes that the policy is anything other than idealistic nonsense.”

Despite this, Phil Potter of WTF member EGNI Biomass, acknowledged the progress made by the political parties. At the 1999 debate, he said, neither Plaid Cymru nor the Conservatives had a forest policy. The fact that they now did was an indication that the WTF had drawn forestry issues to their attention.