Post COP26 the role of trees and timber in climate change mitigation is rightly receiving even greater airtime than before. Use of indigenous timber in construction helps to meet climate targets on so many levels.

The UK imports a staggering 80% of its timber, second only to China in meeting its requirement from abroad. As world timber demand increases faster than supply, it is likely that timber producing countries will use more of their own timber supplies at home to meet stricter climate protocols – and with fluctuations in global markets, it’s clear the UK needs to work towards being more self-sufficient.

The UK currently has 13% forestry cover, with only 10% in England and 18.5% in Scotland, as against a European figure of 38%. At Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), we replant 25 million trees each year and our English counterparts at Forestry England are planting 7 million a year.

Key to ensuring good stocks of commercial timber for the future is to plant the right trees in the right place. We have been investing significantly in research, including at our tree nursery in Newton near Elgin, where we are working on organic seed coatings, which have the potential to save 50 litres of water per seed planted, while ensuring unforeseen drought conditions don’t limit germination and growth. This work is necessary to ensure biodiverse and reliable mass production of tree stocks to meet our need for indigenous timber supply.

Our nursery currently produces 7 million trees from seed every year, with the plan to double this and increase stocks to up to 15 million. Species include Scots pine, native Scots pine, lodgepole pine, Sitka spruce and Norway spruce. Most of the seeds used (80%) are sourced from the FLS managed estate and research into species, germination and planting is ongoing, with the aim of improving reliability and quality.

And while the effects of climate change have heightened the need for more trees to be planted UK wide, it has also affected what trees grow well under changing conditions. The Sitka spruce, which has been planted for many years across Scotland, could soon be joined by other species such as coast redwood, sequoia, western red cedar and Macedonian pine, as we research what other trees will thrive in our changing climate and reduce our exposure to tree disease and pests.

Sitka spruce exhibits good strength and density characteristics and is routinely graded to C16. A proportion can be graded into C24. Forest Research is currently working on ways to improve its mechanical stiffness through tree selection in order that a higher percentage of UK timber can meet this standard.

It is essential to look ahead at the forests of the future to understand more about what we will need our timber to do by the time it is fully grown. With the use of CLT and other engineered products increasing as construction uses more modern and low carbon methods, we need to find more ways of using UK-grown timber that is both consistent and can be graded to the highest level.

Our research should inform how UK timber can work in a greater variety of applications and how it will ensure we are more self-sufficient in the decades to come.

I understand we can never be fully self-sufficient in timber and other land uses, especially agriculture, are important. However, importing any commodities that can be produced at home will always be a risk.

It would be reasonable to assume that the timber shortages we have seen in 2021 are likely to be repeated and may become routine.

From my experience of working in the timber sector, I believe the wider use of UK timber in construction should begin now and existing industry reluctance is really just about changing our mindset. The almost universal application of X-ray machine stress grading in the UK can even make homegrown timber more uniform and reliable than some imported stock.

At the same time, there is an urgent need to produce wood wool fibre boards at home with UK spruce, to provide insulation and sound proofing for modern energy efficient housing, while increasing the market penetration of UK-produced C16 carcassing into applications where C24 may be specified inappropriately.

This is why FLS’s current investment in research and development of future forest stocks is so important as it will help the UK on many levels. Reforestation is an essential part of climate change mitigation. Sustainable management of our commercial woodlands locks away carbon; creates forests for future generations – which can offer leisure and wildlife benefits while growing – provides timber for our future zero carbon buildings; and reduces our reliance on imports. All to the good.