IT is a question I get asked. Sometimes I think the question comes from a desire to have thoughts echoed, and reaffirmed. Sometimes it calls for warnings or practicalities stated. Sometimes it’s because of a need to ‘cut to the chase’ because time is limited, and however much one would like to be, one can’t be everywhere. In that case there’s a mutual understanding, trust perhaps, and I’ll say Norway spruce, for example, and then wonder why I didn’t say Western Hemlock. But then I’ll discover, on further thought, that there were a whole lot of reasons why I said Norway spruce, not just because it’s already growing very well in the area and isn’t being affected by Dendroctonus.

I’ll discover also why I didn’t, on that occasion, suggest a mix of species, diversifying against the risks of future infection or climate change, because there was already regeneration present, or maybe because replanting was left so late there was already a woodland present. The vigorous presence of broadleaves at zero cost, bar opportunity cost, shouldn’t be discounted.

Forestry Journal: A typical restock site with plenty of brash.A typical restock site with plenty of brash.

Of course the case for planting Sitka spruce as a commercial crop is still inalienably strong. A theoretical, but not wildly theoretical, 40 ha of high-yield-class land yielding around 500 m³/ha and sold for £20/m³ standing would give a return of £400,000 at final felling; combine that with perhaps five thinnings, 50 m³ say at £15/m³, and you’re looking at another £150,000 – not discounted. At a planting cost of around £50,000 and a similar establishment cost, your net return could be nearly half a million pounds.

That’s assuming you haven’t had to pay for trackwork. Compare that with compound interest from money in the bank at say 2.5 per cent and you’re ahead: £100,000 at 2.5 per cent 45 years later makes £303,790.

Suddenly, because of the falling pound, timber has got interesting again. And fast-growing spruce, with Rhizophagus grandis (predatory beetle on Dendroctonus) incorporated into the rotation, or on a short rotation that pre-empts the beetle attack, is getting attention. So much that planting marginal agricultural land could be a go. 

And you can say, if you want to, that this is all based on wild optimism for the future, as planting always has been, or you could even say the argument for the continued legacy of forestry is a vanity, and at worst hypocrisy: a smug knowledge of a mastery of the present. Please throw all the arguments and figures at me that you will.

But I will tell you, in full confidence, that there is a yang opposite to that cynicism – that an undeniable pressure on resources; a continued efficiency, expediency and desirability in the use of wood; a likelihood of a continued browbeaten pound as forecast by financial analysts into the middle distance all point towards increasing timber prices. Also, forestry, as one of the longest-term investments man can make, must be viewed on some level as a noble act of faith in the future; the money invested need not have a charitable source for the action to have a philanthropic nature.

Forestry Journal: The successful establishment of mixed conifers on a steep and rough restock site.The successful establishment of mixed conifers on a steep and rough restock site.

So, what shall I plant? 

Because one has been asked this question before. Because of all the discussions one has had, bearing in mind the information that has already been received, e.g. from Dr Terry Mabbet, and others, in this magazine.

Because of acute oak decline, oak processionary moth, Chalara, Phytophthora, Dendroctonus, the various poplar diseases (or, if you want a real scare, look at the list of pathogens that will attack cherry trees), you may wonder how trees, or anything multicellular, survive. Because of the extremes of weather that come with global warming. Because of the way nature abhors monoculture, and the desire for low intervention sought by most owners during the lifetime of the crop. Because of the unpredictability of future markets – for example, pulp and biofuels. Because of the responsibility that goes with forest ownership – towards landscape and ecology. Because of other factors, no doubt, it is very difficult to say what to plant. But it would seem reasonable to suggest planting more than one species and accepting the probable compromises in marketing thinning produce.

Of course it depends on the scale and costs. If it’s only 10 acres you could plant an arboretum and manage it as a single tree selection system. If it’s a thousand acres of exposed wetland, birch and alder can be mixed with spruce, they’re fast growing and cheap to buy, if they’re not already present.

During the era we have had of diminishing interest in planting I have seen woodland felled at cost and replanted at a loss, or not replanted at all. I’ve seen areas unarguably undermanaged, e.g. windblown, remain undermanaged. I’ve seen lorryloads of pulp left to rot in the forest because it was worth less than nothing. Harvesting/restock sites have got rougher and rougher. 

Over the last 20 years the advocates of timber planting have become seen as ‘old school’, out-of-date idealists born in an age of the national reserve; arguers against the complacency that comes with affluence, with everything and anything importable. Perhaps you as well as I had come to question the raison d’etre of British forestry in a globalised, specialised world. Only the old stalwarts remained resonant, the rest regarding them with alternating admiration and pity – endearing characters from a former time who would never understand that British forestry was more about public benefits and amenity than timber production.

Forestry Journal:  Trash below tracks eventually rots down and can be planted through. Trash below tracks eventually rots down and can be planted through.

I know what you’re going to say: that investment forecast is all wrong. Yes, I was waiting to see if you’d spot the intentional mistake. It doesn’t take account of the cost of the land and it doesn’t factor inflation. Stands that are being harvested now didn’t cost £50,000 to plant. Not when you consider that the agricultural wage was around £30 per week. As far as timber prices are concerned I would say they have just exceeded those that were attained in the mid ‘90s.

The subsequent price decline coincided with interest rate reductions, improvements in harvesting technology and increasing viability of imports. But for those whose stands were planted in the 1950s and 1960s and who have had time to wait before final felling, the gains are much higher than a few per cent. So it should be, when you consider the risks.

So if you take inflation at 2.89 per cent (30-year average) the ‘real’ value of your £303,790 after 45 years in the bank is £85,101. If you don’t believe me go on

In those terms, what risks are you taking? Letting the land grow firewood would look better on paper than letting the bankers take £15,000 from you. Unless, of course, it’s farmland you’ve got (or are thinking of buying) and you’ve found a farmer who will pay you a good rent to graze it.

Let’s say you get £100 per acre by 100 acres (approximately 40 ha) gives £10,000 by 45 years, totalling £450,000 which is not too dissimilar to what you would get at final felling. 

Or you might say, ‘I’ve already bought houses!’ And that’s fine. Your £100,000 plus the cost of the land, which, just for the sake of inconsistency, we didn’t include before because it seemed unfair, at say £400,000, leaves you enough to buy outright the rentable value of around £15,000 per year or £675,000 after 45 years – theoretically.

Forestry Journal: Woodland creation 15 years later with nurse conifers.Woodland creation 15 years later with nurse conifers.

From these tentative figures, the status quo seems to be explained. Grants and tax incentives will change things a little. Annual farm payments will weigh up against income and inheritance tax relief. Woodland grants (apart from the help with initial planting) probably won’t be an influencing factor in determining whether you decide to plant up a field or not. However, one of the big pluses, as I see it, on the investment spectrum where woodland creation or restocking is considered, is the low level of necessary intervention after establishment. Other than enjoyment. 

You might say, ‘I’ve already planted up my fields. And they’re beautiful. I didn’t need to see or think about any figures. Other than 45 years’ worth of excrement, what else could I leave behind?’

I’d say that’s fine too.


Christopher Deakins