Surge in timber prices sparks call for more tree planting

18 May 2018

Timber prices in the UK have soared by almost 30 per cent in a year, according to newly-released figures.

Forestry Commission statistics showed a surge in the price of standing timber (trees not yet harvested) - up by 28.2 per cent from March 2017 to March 2018. The price of softwood sawlogs went up by 20.8 per cent in the six months to March 2018.

Confor said the price spikes reflected a booming wood processing industry and highlighted the need to increase tree planting significantly - to deliver more timber into markets and avoid reliance on imports. It also said there were real opportunities for farmers to diversify and plant a portion of their land with trees to create a more sustainable business model after Brexit.

"We are already the world's second largest net importer of timber after China but the UK Government is still missing its modest tree planting targets," said Andrew Heald, Confor’s Technical Director.

"Confor is working with members and with governments across the UK to identify ways to bring more timber to market. It is vital that the majors growers, including the Forestry Commission and Natural Resources Wales maximise all opportunities to do this."

Mr Heald said that prices were even higher in some regional hotspots, including Wales and Dumfries & Galloway in southern Scotland - and called for a long-term approach to forestry to secure future supply.

“This is a complex issue for the industry,” he said. “While high timber prices are good news for the UK’s forest owners, these are tough times for wood processors who are also having to compete with cheap imports of sawn timber. A steady supply of round timber is essential for saw millers and processors to plan their operations and to have the confidence to continue to invest in their mills and factories." 

Mr Heald highlighted the recent Norbord announcement of a £95 million investment in its board factory in Inverness - one of the biggest inwards investments in any business sector in Scotland in recent years. He said: "Even before this, processors in Scotland alone were investing £50 million-plus a year in their sites - but that investment will only continue while there is confidence in supply.

"Sawmills are currently paying top prices for their timber, but the price of sawn timber and timber products is not rising at the same rate - and they are already competing with cheap imported wooden goods. It's a tough time for them and we are working with the industry and government to try to work through the current supply crisis. However, what we need above all else is a structured approach to long-term planting and that means more tree planting. 

"Scotland is increasing planting rates but the rest of the UK is lagging behind and the supply crisis will only get worse in the years and decades to come unless we tackle this problem now. These statistics highlight the need for forestry and wood processing to be a much more central focus of the rural economy after Brexit.

Mr Heald said many farmers and landowners were realising the benefits of planting part of their land with trees - to provide shelter for livestock, firewood in the medium term, and a cash crop and a more balanced business in the longer term. "For those who already have trees, but have maybe not managed them well - or who have timber in hard-to-access locations - now is a great time to have that asset valued and look at realising a great price. When you have done that, you can re-plant the land and then consider extending the area covered by trees."

The Forestry Commission statistics can be seen here