Wales needs trees – so why aren’t we planting any?

1 February 2018

Martin Bishop calls for a renewed tree-planting push in Wales.

Read his article in Click on Wales.

It might surprise you to learn that according to Woodlands for Wales Indicators 2015-16 the forestry and timber industry employs more than 10,000 people in Wales – and is worth more than £520 million annually to the economy.

As well as providing a supply of timber, trees are crucial to Wales’ climate change ambitions; they soak up carbon as they grow, and that carbon is stored away in wood products for many years. Modern forests also create habitats for biodiversity, areas for recreation, they reduce flood risk and clean the air we breathe.

And people love trees; 96 per cent said they provided at least one public benefit to Wales in the public opinion of forestry survey (2017); almost 8 in 10 said they were good for wildlife and 68 per cent said they were important for recreation.

Trees are clearly a well-loved and integral feature of the Welsh landscape – but the shocking statistic is that 18000 Hectares (40 million trees) have disappeared since 2001, despite their significance to the environment, economy and rural communities.

New planting rates have dropped to almost zero in recent years according to Forestry Commission Statistics 2017 – and many businesses are warning thousands of forestry jobs could be lost unless planting of softwoods (conifers) increases rapidly. As Wales Manager for the forestry and timber trade body Confor, I talk to these businesses all the time and they are worried.

Josh Sambrook-Jones of Clifford Jones Timber (near Ruthin in North Wales) says they would create more jobs immediately if it had more wood – and could double or treble production if they had enough trees to supply the demand.

That demand is for wooden products we all take for granted – fencing, decking and boards for flooring and kitchen units, as well as pallets for industry and timber frames for houses.

Jonathan Poynton of Pontrilas sawmills, which operate on the Wales/England border, is another man with a simple message: planting trees now is planting jobs for the future. “As long as we have trees to harvest and process, we will employ people,” he told me. “More trees equals more jobs.” 

But Wales simply isn’t planting the trees these important rural employers need.

The Climate Change Strategy for Wales contains an aspiration to create 100,000 hectares (ha) of new woodland between 2010 and 2030 as a means to help Wales meet its carbon emission reduction targets. The recommendation from the Land Use Climate Change Group (2010) was accepted by the Welsh Government as a climate change target to achieve levels of reduction in Wales greenhouse gas emissions by long-term carbon sequestration. The aspiration required planting 5,000ha of additional woodland cover per year from 2010 to 2030. This means we should have planted 35000ha by now, the reality is we have managed just 3700ha, which is only 11% of target.

Since then, driven by the lack of achievement, Welsh Government has created a new Woodlands for Wales Action Plan which sets a new short-term target of creating 2000ha of new woodland/forests per annum by 2020. The UK Committee on Climate Change (UKCCC) in its recent report to Welsh Government, suggests a much higher target of 4000ha every year to meet Wales’ environmental obligations.

When Lord Deben, Chair of the UK Climate Change Committee highlighted the 4000ha annual target, he said he was disappointed Wales “had not embraced forestry as it should have in recent years”. He continued: “Wales needs a national determination to plant more trees.”Yet, as Woodlands for Wales Indicators 2015-16 points out, a pitiful 39ha of new productive forest were planted in 2016.

Throw in other factors like a failure to restock felled forests immediately, highlighted in The Changes in Canopy Cover in British Woodlands report, the 18000ha of lost conifer forest previously mentioned, and removing trees for wind farms such as the Pen y Cymoedd wind farm development(Net loss of 250Ha of productive forest, not including the 18000ha reported in Woodlands for Wales indicators), all means the productive capacity of Welsh forests is declining dramatically over the next 15–20 years.

The long-term 50 Year Forecast of Softwood Availability for Wales shows a catastrophic decline in timber production in the near future. This will reduce investment by wood processing companies and threatens jobs.

The lack of planting (and determination) has contributed to a wider UK problem and created another shocking statistic; the UK is the second largest global net importer of wood products by value, overtaking Japan and behind only China in the latest statistics.

Wales has to play its part in tackling this dreadful state of affairs. New planting is set to increase slightly, with around 1,000ha planned for 2018 but this is still way below what is needed.

Also, the majority of new planting has not been the productive softwood species (like spruce, pine and Douglas fir) to supply the timber needed to secure jobs and provide the wood products we all take for granted.

Last summer, things started to look up. Pressure from Confor led to the publication of the Branching Out report by the Welsh Assembly Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs committee, calling for a sharp increase in planting, especially productive conifer species.

Confor has called for the urgent implementation of the Branching Out report and for the first time in nearly a generation, the Welsh Government has acknowledged there is a problem.

Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn told the Welsh Assembly that improving and expanding the woodland of Wales is one of her top priorities. The noises coming from the Minister and from the Welsh Government, are very positive – but there is no time to lose. An old forester once told me the best time to plant trees was 20 years ago – and the next best time is now. This is very true.

We need a swift, decisive commitment by the Welsh Government to make tree planting happen, to give wood processing companies the confidence that there will be continued supplies of timber from Welsh forests in the future. Regular planting will secure jobs and enhance future investment and the Government must seize the opportunity.

Lesley Griffiths, the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, has put climate change at the heart of her work and I welcome that – because forestry can also be a real game-changer for climate change as demonstrated by the Combating climate change – a role for UK forests report. As well as soaking up, and storing, atmospheric carbon, planting trees will help Wales become more globally responsible by reducing imports of timber and timber products.

We should be targeting self-sufficiency in timber production in the long-term.

Wales must take the advice of that old forester and start planting those trees now – to protect its economy and environment and deliver a bright future for its rural communities.

Our film Animating Forestry demonstrates the link between forestry and wood products.