The spring and early summer have seen a continuation of the rare and welcome situation for the UK timber industry where buoyant demand is reported from all markets. Usually, if one sector is doing well then one or more others are suffering, but the construction, fencing, garden products, decking and pallet and packaging sectors are all busy.

Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings that business is becoming a little quieter, but there are no clear indicators of this. It’s possible that the reported slowdown in housing starts is catching up with suppliers, but equally it could be a momentary blip.

Sawmills report good demand for carcassing. Supplies into merchants is a significant part of the business and there is increasing focus on customer service – meeting the needs of merchants with just-in-time deliveries to their distribution depots.

Markets for fencing and garden products are performing well, as expected for this time of year and despite the mixed weather patterns. Decking remains bullish and suppliers are confident that this is now an established long-term market and no ‘flash in the pan’ resulting from TV garden makeover programmes.

Demand for pallet and packaging material remains strong as has been the case for several months. There are some suggestions that stocks of Baltic timber may be a bit higher than normal at pallet and packaging manufacturers, as shippers have caught up with previous under-shipments.

Sawmills are expressing concerns about a tightening of log supplies. The Forestry Commission in Wales has revised its predicted supply from 1 million m3 to around 770,000m3 – a significant 23% reduction that could be devastating to companies that planned investment programmes based on expected availability.

There are suspicions that state-owned forests in south Scotland are also being overcut and that there could be a downward revision of the predicted supply from this area as well – and there are worries that the situation could spread even further.

Sawmills are urging the private sector to bring more to the market, but private growers cannot be relied upon to fill any void – the drivers that encourage them to sell are varied and almost unknowable and not necessarily related to levels of demand. Having said that, the reliance the industry has had on supplies from state forests must also be reassessed in the light of policies that include the use of woods for recreational and other purposes.

Forestry Commission England director Paul Hill-Tout has written to industry organisations in response to media coverage that followed the launch of the new “Keepers of Time” policy statement on England’s ancient and native woodlands by forestry minister Jim Knight (see

Misleading impression

Some coverage “may have given a misleading impression of the scope and context of the new policy statement”, wrote Mr Hill-Tout, by focusing on the removal of conifers and their replacement with native broadleaves.

In an attached note, he says the statement relates solely to the 550,000ha of ancient and native woodlands, which represent 50% of the woodland area of England, and consolidates a range of policies and delivery mechanisms that have been evolving over the past 15-20 years.

Under the new statement of policy, the position of the FC towards Planted Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS – the 80,000ha of ancient woodland sites in England that have been planted with conifers with grant support over the last 50 years) is that owners will be encouraged to restore planted ancient woodland to native species as conifer plantations mature over the next 20 years, at a rate necessary to achieve targets in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (which is under review).

Woodland owners will remain free within the UK Forest Standard to determine when they wish to harvest their conifers, the species for replanting and whether they wish to seek grant aid from the Forestry Commission – although under the new English Woodland Grant Scheme the FC will pay 100% of the costs involved with converting to native species, whereas no grants will be available for replacing conifers with conifers on ancient woodland sites.

The ending of the Finnish paper strike after seven weeks – longer than anyone had expected – is welcome. For UK growers, the action caused a reduction in exports of small roundwood – one source estimates that the figure could be 50,000 tonnes. Given that annual supplies of small roundwood to UK markets is around 3 million tonnes and exports were expected to be 500,000 tonnes for the year, this figure, while not insignificant, is relatively unimportant in terms of the total volume for the year.

Windblow in Europe

Of greater concern is the impact of windblow in Europe. There are still fears that there could be an influx of lower quality material that would go into the pallet and packaging sector, although there are no signs of this so far – but there could also be a surge in volumes of pulpwood this winter and next spring.

Where possible, harvesting gangs assisting with the clear-up operations have been concentrating on extracting higher value sawlogs. However, in reality harvesters tend to work an ‘area’ and extract everything they find until they reach a point where only small roundwood is left – by which time they will be able to branch into another area.

Gangs in Finland had to stop work because of the paper strike, since paper mills couldn’t take small roundwood and sawmills couldn’t cut sawlogs as they had nowhere to send the chips and sawdust. This also affected gangs in south Sweden – some of whom returned to their own countries.

Reports suggest that UK gangs who originally thought they’d be in south Sweden for six months may end up staying for about a year. It’s become apparent that the yield is less than expected, partly due to the difficulty of assessing the volume initially and partly because of the problems of extracting wood that’s buried under other fallen trees.

Whereas a yield of 90% would be expected when harvesting standing trees, yield from the windblow areas in south Sweden is said to be running at 75-80%. In some areas it’s less than this, especially in pine forests where the long deep roots of the trees mean more ‘snap’ damage and result in shorter, lower grade material.

Now that the initial urgent work to clear roads has been completed, the authorities are looking at productivity from the gangs and some whose equipment or productivity is not up to scratch have been asked to leave.

One benefit of the activity for the UK is that harvester gangs have significantly extended their experience, been able to afford new machinery in some cases, and have been able to learn, for example, how to use sophisticated optimising software available for harvesting machinery. They will return home with a higher level of skill.