FORESTRY Journal has previously visited both BSW sawmills at Boat of Garten and Fort William, seeing first hand the amount of timber products they produce on a weekly and annual basis. The man charged with sourcing and supplying the logs for both mills is Ewan Robertson, Area Timber Buyer for Tilhill Forestry. James Hendrie caught up with him to find out more about his work.

FOR Ewan Robertson, Monday is an important day of the week. “It involves reviewing the previous week’s performance on logs supplied to the mills,” he said. “This allows me to assess that what has been supplied has met their requirements in terms of both volume and quality. Quality is determined as being meeting length, diameter, and straightness specifications set by the mills. The mills ascertain this by checking each load received either visually or through the log scanner.”

As area timber buyer for Tilhill Forestry, Ewan’s role involves working with the mill managers to understand their requirements, then with log suppliers, to match their needs together. He is assisted by a supply chain controller, Marina Marin, who supports by organising the scheduling and dispatch of timber to the sawmills. Marina’s work helps to ensure that the day-to-day administration and KPIs are met.

However, while you can have all the planning in the world, Ewan is well used to having to make adjustments and changes to his plans as unforeseen things occur, which can affect the supplies of timber. 

From looking back over the week to looking forwards, it becomes, by Thursday, a case of receiving the log forecasts from each mill for the following week’s requirements and starting to seek this out with suppliers. This is when Ewan starts to investigate what is available. The suppliers provide roadside stocks and timber availability weekly.

Roadside stock enables the team to respond rapidly to the mill’s queries and requirements. Once they have the information, Ewan and Marina schedule the deliveries and issue quotas to the suppliers. By Friday morning, they are fully engaged in this process and he may be discussing more specific log requirements for each mill.
While Ewan is employed by Tilhill Forestry, and has been an area timber buyer for one and a half years, he is based at the BSW Fort William sawmill. He is therefore on hand to meet with Mill Manager Olly Stephen and the planning team on a regular basis. He also maintains contact with Boat of Garten Manager Dave Mills, both by visiting the site and through regular Skype calls. Both mills have very different requirements, adding to the challenge he must face.

Relationships with both are key for Ewan, with his role being to give both Olly and Dave the materials they need to keep the mills working. The growth in the Fort William sawmill has certainly added to his workload, with the increasing volumes that have been required there each year. 

“The log diet for Fort William ranges from 3.1 m logs with a minimum diameter of 14 cm,” he said, “Right up to 8.2 m logs with a 90 cm maximum diameter for the K3 large log line. Boat of Garten is predominately 4.9 m lengths with a small requirement for 3.7 m lengths. The recent addition of a round fencing line at this mill adds to the challenge, because of the tight specifications required. Dave needs round wood between and 8 cm and 11 cm diameter with lengths between 1.7 m and 2.7 m.”

Ewan is well placed to be a log buyer, having in the past worked for Tilhill Forestry as a timber harvesting manager. He is therefore well used to seeing the job from all sides and has, over the years, worked at times for both Tilhill and BSW. A big part of the job role, other than reviewing and placing orders, is taking part in regular meetings with timber suppliers including Tilhill Forestry’s harvesting teams and the mill teams. In his role, he reports to Tilhill’s Regional Harvesting Manager for Northern Scotland, Gavin Brown.

Never mind the differing requirements of each of the mills in terms of log size and specification, there are also major differences in terms of the weekly volumes needed by each of them. Fort William consumes around 10,000 tonnes per week of roundwood, which equates to some 400 lorry loads. Boat of Garten, on the other hand, requires around 1,900 tonnes or 80 lorry loads. 

Fort William is also supplied by boat, as the site is located adjacent to Corpach Harbour. Log vessel shiploads range in size from 750 to 1,000 tonnes. These come from islands including Mull, allowing timber to be utilised from areas with inadequate road infrastructure that otherwise would be difficult to market.

In terms of tree species, both mills use Sitka spruce as the dominant species. Boat of Garten also uses Scots and lodgepole pine through the winter months, and some mixed conifers. Fort William uses Spruce, but also takes a small percentage of Douglas fir and larch, but no pine species. Ewan sources timber from a number of companies including Tilhill Forestry, Iggesund, Euroforest, Scottish Woodlands and Egger, for ‘over the weighbridge’, where the timber is delivered in directly to the mills. 

He purchases roadside timber from Forestry and Land Scotland, which leaves him arranging the haulage and building this cost into the prices he negotiates. Ewan has built up relationships with a number of timber hauliers, including Boyd Brothers, Collie Haulage, Ferguson Transport, Peter McKerral, and Great Glen Shipping Company, which is used for shipping in the timber to Corpach. Hauliers for Boat of Garten include Grants Ballindalloch Timber Haulage, Ian Craig, and J & G Riddell. As the volumes of timber required by the mills have risen, so too has the need to keep developing new relationships with hauliers, ensuring a robust logistics resource. 

Site visits form another part of the working week, looking at standing timber before deciding whether to make bids. Ewan said: “I very much enjoy walking sites as it gives me an opportunity to assess the quality of the crop and the likely production levels that it will yield. 
“On these visits, the quality, diameter, and straightness of the wood can also be assessed. It additionally gives me the opportunity to meet up with suppliers and their contractors on site. These meetings can take place right across the north of Scotland.”

Fort William timber is sourced from as far south as the Trossachs, to the Kintyre peninsula and right up to the north coast to Caithness, while timber to supply Boat of Garten comes from Aberdeenshire, Moray, the A9 corridor and the Tay area, including Rannoch. Both mills pull timber from forests south of Loch Ness. 

Forecasting is vital when it comes to buying logs. It is key to working out where the volumes are coming from, when they will hit the market, and establishing the right time to harvest them.

“Primary focus when forecasting for the mills is on the anticipated levels of production on harvesting sites,” said Ewan. “Production can vary massively from site to site for a variety of reasons and understanding those is important.

“Our planning must take account of a variety of things, including environmental constraints, which can prevent us accessing timber. Felling of trees can be impacted by all kinds of wildlife constraints. Even without such issues, there are logistical challenges to consider. These can include the availability of suitable roads into the forests, whether they are sound or need to be constructed first, as well as considering the surrounding public road network to extract the timber to the mills.”

The availability of trees to harvest is also an important consideration. Currently, there is good supply, thanks to the commercial planting that took place in the 1970s and 80s. Ewan is confident that this will continue to be the case for the next decade or so. He said: “There are forecasting tools which show where the trees are being planted and when they will be ready to harvest. In the past, planting would have been proportionately carried out as 60% Forestry and Land Scotland, in its old guise of Forestry Commission Scotland, and 40% private landowners. However, this situation is now reversing.” 

For Ewan, it is the sheer variety of the job that he enjoys. While there are plenty of meetings, gatherings and events that require his attendance, it is being out in the woods that he likes best. His route to his current job role saw him leaving school and working for the National Trust for Scotland at Crathes Castle with the Countryside Rangers and Forestry Department at Banchory. With a continued interest in trees and forestry, he then worked with tree surgeons including Lothian Tree Services in Midlothian. Tree-felling and thinning work followed in Speyside, with, amongst others, Scottish Woodlands. As a contract supervisor with Scottish Woodlands, he gained valuable experience not only in timber harvesting but also in woodland establishment, ground preparation, and restocking.

“I operated as a supervisor for several companies and then was successful in gaining a harvesting manager role with Tilhill Forestry in Aberdeenshire and Angus,” he said.

“This job allowed me to build relationships with forestry contractors and hauliers, along with growers and forestry agents. The role focused on supply of pulpwood for export, through the ports of Aberdeen, Fraserburgh, and Montrose. From this, I then took up the position of timber harvesting manager based at the Fort William sawmill, working in Lochaber and Inverness-shire. A vacancy then arose to become an area timber buyer.”

Timber supplies are purchased in several ways, including auctions, tendering, and negotiation. There are also long-term contracts with Tilhill and other forest owners. Open-market tenders through land and forest agents such as Bidwells and Galbraiths are another part of the equation. There is a balance to be struck by sourcing timber directly using these methods or through letting suppliers carry out this role.