Why we need more trees

Simon Hart of EGGER Forestry will speak at the Conference Superwood: How forestry and timber can drive a low-carbon ecomomy.

"Planting the Future: Why the wood processing industry needs more trees"

It is now almost exactly a 100 years since the Forestry Commission was formed. Shortly after, in the 1920’s, the first conifer trees were planted in Kielder, Northumberland. Some 40 years later, and 30 miles away, a chipboard factory was built in Hexham. The second event was not unrelated to the first. A good early example of the mantra; plant the trees and the industry will come.

That early chipboard plant has grown into a huge state-of-the-art site, employing over 640 people and with many more in the supply chain - often in rural areas. EGGER has two manufacturing sites in the UK, EGGER Hexham in Northumberland and EGGER Barony in Ayrshire, together they take in a combined total of over 850,000 tonnes of virgin fibre, one third directly from the forest and two thirds of sawdust and chips from various sawmills.

The rise of the timber processing industry tracks the afforestation undertaken from those early plantings in the 1920’s up until the 1980’s. New planting then came to a shuddering halt for a collection of reasons including tax changes, conservation priorities, politics and economics. The north of England has been left relatively treeless with a woodland cover of only 8% (Scotland 17%, EU average 35%). Timber output from our forests is actually falling.  This means that as a region the north of England is a net importer of timber (mainly from Scotland).

We now have a situation where there is not enough timber to go around at a time of rising demand and a buoyant market. The lack of supply is constraining economic development and all those associated jobs. A real missed opportunity for local economic development.

 Timber processing is a capital intensive business. At EGGER for example we have invested some quarter of a billion pounds over the last 10 or so years and we invest millions every year. Like other similar businesses we are committed to the long-term, but to be sustainable we need a reliable, long-term timber supply.

If there is not enough timber in the UK , can we import it? Yes we can, and we do, but only on a small scale. Timber remains a relatively low value product and It is far cheaper to move chipboard around Europe than it is timber, i.e. our business model cannot be based on imported timber. We need domestic supply.

At the present moment in time all the logic suggests we should be planting more trees; both productive and environmental.  The list of reasons for planting more trees and using more timber is huge and well-rehearsed, including economic diversification, jobs, flood alleviation, climate change and recreation. And yet we still plant hardly any new woodlands in the north of England (despite there being lots of suitable land) and fall massively behind the Government’s own afforestation targets. In my next blog I will try and unpick why this is and, hopefully, how we can change things.