Forestry in the UK is a young industry, with much to learn and changes to make, but with a great story to tell and a bright future.

From just 4% tree cover in 1919, Britain now has 11% and Scotland 14%. During the boom period of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, commercial planting raced ahead and we are now reaping the benefits. Restructuring of woodlands is under way and, as felling is phased, even-aged plantations are being transformed into attractive forests.

In 1988, new planting amounted to 24,000ha but planting rates have fallen to less than half that figure in recent years, with an increasing percentage of broadleaves, reflecting changing objectives.

The sea change to the tax treatment of forestry in 1988 was followed by a period of rationalisation and diversification. Increasing mechanisation, particularly in harvesting, also led to fewer people being employed in forestry, with the workforce shrinking 25% since 1988.

The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 was another milestone, forcing sustainability on to the agenda and leading to the introduction of woodland certification, after much negotiation with stakeholders. The UK Woodland Assurance Standard is now seen worldwide as a blueprint for a national certification process which meets the requirements of internationally recognised schemes.

Since devolution, each of the four countries of the UK has been developing its own forest strategy. In England, it is expected that there will be further differentiation to reflect regional needs.

Grants are being re-jigged to reflect changing priorities. However, the total amount of public investment in private forestry is generally not being increased.

Regulation by the Forestry Commission is now based on the UK Forestry Standard, which demands considerable detail in grant applications, in some instances including environmental assessment and landscape plans.

So, during the past five decades, forestry has experienced significant fluctuations in investment, markets, support and employment, but in these respects, it is no different from most other industries. What does differentiate us is that we have created a significant resource, which has the potential to deliver an increasing volume of industrial raw material and this presents our industry with particular challenges and opportunities.

The task ahead

The challenges are:

  •  Low price of timber, lack of markets and over-supply.

  •  Fragmented supply of round timber.

  •  High value of sterling, especially against the euro.

  • Increasing costs and burdens including certification and new health and safety rules.

  •  In real terms, falling financial support.

  •  Difficulties with forest access and transport of timber.

  •  Competition from state-owned Forest Enterprise.

  •  The long-term nature of the crop.

    While the main opportunities to be exploited include:

  • Growing public and political awareness of benefits which forestry delivers.

  • Technological development and innovation.

  •  Forestry’s environmental benefits and the fact that timber is the greenest industrial resource.

  •  CAP reform and other sources of support.

  •  Increasing production of round timber.

  • Proximity of supplies to markets (compared with eastern Europe).

  •  Climate change.

So how do we match up all these factors and develop forestry into a mature, successful industry?

First we need to grow the market. There are various marketing and public awareness campaigns running and FTA is a strong supporter of wood. for good. Charlie Dimmock has worked wonders for timber decking while timber frame housing is taking off throughout the UK. Even Greenpeace acknowledges that “good” timber should be promoted instead of concrete (TTJ 17/08/02).

The market will also grow through technological developments and innovation in timber products. And recently, research and training received a boost with the establishment of the Timber Technology Centre at Napier University in Edinburgh.

A feasibility study has also been carried into raising funds for a new pulp mill. However, we are competing with many other countries for such investment, so government involvement and strong industry support are essential levers.

Investment in additional sawmill capacity for higher value logs will also be required. We should not, however, rely on existing markets but constantly search for new ones. Much has been promised by the wood energy market, but regrettably, significant outlets for lower grade raw material have failed to develop. We need to make a concerted effort to unlock the potential of that market, particularly in the light of the government’s renewable energy targets.

We need better integration throughout the supply chain as well. The creation of the Scottish Forest Industries Cluster, through Scottish Enterprise, has helped to focus the entire supply chain on working more closely together to the overall benefit of the industry. And lessons learned from this initiative will promote development of greater supply chain integration in other parts of the UK.

We also have to try to reduce our production costs through technology and greater efficiency. This is not easy when everyone in the supply chain has seen their margins reducing, making it tough to justify new capital investment.

Certification and higher standards in areas such as health and safety have met with some resistance because of low profit margins, yet progress is being made, demonstrating that forestry is a responsible, forward-looking industry. Certification is a marketing tool, not only for our primary product, but also in promoting the wider social and environmental benefits forestry delivers.

Independent businessmen analysing forestry often urge us to think more in terms of producing what customers want. But, this is easier said than done. When we plant trees, we have no idea what markets, constraints or preferences there will be in 30, 40 or 50 years’ time, let alone 100 or more. We have to aim for quality, but that means greater expenditure, which is one reason we are so dependent on government support. It is an act of faith to plant trees, effectively locking up the land in perpetuity and the capital invested for several decades.

Paying for forestry’s benefits

Old public perceptions of UK forests as ‘serried ranks of conifers’ and ‘wall to wall sitka’ seem to be less prevalent today and criticism of our industry has declined dramatically. However, we still need to raise awareness of forestry’s environmental credentials and the numerous non-market benefits we deliver. The Forest Education Initiative, aimed particularly at informing schools and youth groups through local partnerships, is an example that should be developed.

The government showcased forestry as a model of sustainability at Johannesburg. However, forestry can only be socially and environmentally sustainable if it is economically sustainable and, particularly under current market conditions, this will require government recognition of forestry’s non-market values. FTA is fighting, not for subsidy, but for proper recompense for the non-market benefits which are currently provided free of charge. If these are valued, and paid for, forestry can be truly sustainable.

Working together

Following long-term pressure for fewer forestry organisations, the first mergers took place when the Association of Professional Foresters, The Ulster Timber Growers Organisation and the Timber Growers Association joined forces in January 2002 to become the Forestry & Timber Association (FTA). For political and technical representation from a fragmented industry, a powerful voice is essential if we are to have any influence. And it’s an important step for effective communication with our customers, the timber processors.

Growers and processors are increasingly working together, with other partners such as research and development practitioners, architects and specifiers. The final consumer is also indirectly forestry’s customer and we all have to influence this common target positively, bearing in mind economic push and pull factors. Working together we can turn challenges into opportunities and opportunities into tangible benefits.

The forthcoming International Forest Machinery Exhibition and International Forest Fest is an unrivalled opportunity for us to promote our industry. This is not only a trade fair: volunteers will be escorting and informing school parties, architects and specifiers and, for the first time, the public will be attracted by the wide range of events, such as the World Loggers Championships. The general media are lined up and FTA will ensure that as many politicians as possible come along to the venue in Birkshaw Forest, with all visitors encouraged to view the substantial strengths of UK forestry from ‘seed to sawmill’.