The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting (APPGF&TP) met online in April to discuss whether the UK should set ambitious plans for producing more wood. Carolyne Locher reports.

APRIL’S All-Party Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting began with a brief AGM. Ben Lake MP was re-elected as APPG chair, Deidre Brock MP (SNP) as APPG vice chair, with support from Drew Hendry MP (SNP), Lord Clark, Lord Carrington and Lord Colgrain.

Opening the session, Confor’s host David Lee highlighted that in the coming months, “the release of the England Tree Strategy and the results of devolved elections in Scotland and Wales are significant for the direction of forestry policy.”

He thanked Drew Hendry MP for accepting Confor’s five-point plan on behalf of the SNP in Scotland.

APPG chair Ben Lake introduced the session. “Today, we are asking the deceptively simple question, ‘Should the UK set ambitious plans for producing more wood?’ by looking at how we can develop high-volume softwood markets in tandem with smaller but higher-value markets for hardwood.”

Confor CEO Stuart Goodall asked: “What’s the problem? The world wants wood. Climate change is accelerating. By producing wood in the UK, we get multiple benefits: carbon reduction, rural jobs, and income to manage woods sustainably and to fund biodiversity.”

He separated softwood and hardwood markets by scale. “In the UK, softwood (spruce, pine, larch and more, grown mainly in north and western England, Scotland, and Wales) is the volume market for construction, fencing, pallets and packaging. Construction is key in de-carbonising the economy. Fencing, pallets and packaging were designated ‘essential’ in lockdown.

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“Hardwood (slower grown in southern and lowland England) and slower-growing softwoods is a niche market used in bespoke housing, flooring and furniture, and for firewood.

“We currently produce approximately 4 million cubic metres of softwood a year. The UK faces a softwood timber supply gap from 2030 onwards, the reason being that in recent years, planting has favoured broadleaf for water and biodiversity benefits, not wood production.”

Confor recommends planting rates of 7,500 ha per year in England by 2025, rising to 10,000 ha per year by 2035. “If 25 per cent of this is high-quality softwood timber, England’s wood production forecast rises to approximately 6 million cubic metres by 2060.”

Hardwoods represent less than 8 per cent of the UK market and 80 per cent ends up as firewood, a market which government is now regulating for air quality. “I would like to increase our use of hardwoods, but these markets are complementary, not interchangeable. We will not replace softwood supply with hardwood any century soon. Let’s look at growing both in tandem.”

Tom Barnes, managing director of Vastern Timber, wants ‘Planting with purpose’, “a national timber strategy to provide the renewable and low-carbon raw material we need in the future.

“We import approximately 500,000 cubic metres of hardwood (mostly from the US), valued at £400 million each year, and 6.5 million cubic metres of softwood. The total global sawn production of hardwood is 500 million cubic metres.

“The UK produces approximately 30,000 cubic metres of sawn hardwood timber from 76,000 tonnes of green hardwood logs. Ten times as much goes for woodfuel, due mainly to the timber quality.

“This country makes bold pledges to cut emissions: 11 per cent of emissions come from the production and installation of carbon-intensive and non-renewable building materials and products. Wood is an obvious replacement, but we have little because in England forestry has not been taken seriously for at least 40 years.”

The UK imports 70 per cent of the timber used and 90 per cent of the hardwood. “Our biggest supplier, the US, is experiencing a building boom. The lumber futures market has risen from $300 to $1,300 per 1,000 board feet in the last year. In supply countries, timber production has decreased due to pests and disease, fires and historic over-cutting, while freight rates from Asia have increased. Prices rise when shortages bite. While some drivers will ease, other trends will make it tougher for a country that imports 70 per cent of its timber.

“In future, our GDP is predicted to grow 130 per cent by 2050, building stocks to double by 2060 and timber in construction to rise by at least170 per cent by 2050. The latter figure takes us from approximately 2.2 million cubic metres to 5.8 million cubic metres by 2050. Available home-grown volumes of roundwood are between 3.7 million and 4.7 million cubic metres. Demand outstrips supply and the scarcity faced during the next 40 years is similar to that seen after WW1. We need a national timber strategy similar to that seen when the Forestry Commission was created to undertake tree planting on an epic scale.”

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The UK Climate Change Committee’s (UKCCC) sixth carbon budget calls for a scaling-up of afforestation to 30,000 ha by 2025 and 50,000 ha by 2035. “Another epic effort. It doesn’t mention the quality of planting, ongoing management or the usefulness of woodlands, forests and the timber resource in the future.

“The next national timber strategy must produce clean, renewable building products and plastic replacements for the future. The timber crop (2060 onwards) must include native and naturalised hardwoods, conifers (cedar and Douglas fir) and areas of productive spruce and pine (and some experimental species) planted from selected seed and ongoing management. If we plant, let’s not waste this opportunity, to plant with purpose and provide the raw material for the future.”

Baroness Young, a Labour peer and chair of the Woodland Trust, shared some thoughts on ‘Planting hardwoods with a purpose, how ambitious should we be?’

“Disclaimer: This is not official Woodland Trust policy yet.” They are in discussions.

“The timber import statistics are heartbreaking. Our ‘State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021’ report shows 7 per cent of native woodlands in ‘good condition’. Over half have a decline in species diversity, despite increasing woodland cover.

“Government has committed to planting more trees and to increase off-site construction. They want to increase timber-based construction and to reduce reliance on carbon-based materials. There is an opportunity: Importing less wood and relying less on the global market, we can boost jobs and improve the native woodland condition while supporting the UK native hardwood industry.”

A five-point plan includes: “1. Examine commercial planting and conservation-based planting to see how both go about creating woodlands to try to maximise the benefits commercially (income) for biodiversity improvement and carbon sequestration. There is common ground. We must see whether we can achieve multipurpose woods.

“2. Government must stipulate the use of home-grown hardwood and softwood in government construction procurement to help create the market. We must work with government to address the lack of clarity facing the domestic woodfuel industry [in the face of carbon emissions reductions].

“3. We may get a national tree plan eventually. I would like incentives in that for managing native broadleaf woods for the future and for a substantial proportion to be managed to allow a commercial timber crop to be taken.

“4. A national timber strategy could work, but let’s make it a productive woodland strategy, producing benefits for biodiversity and carbon reduction, as well as competitive markets and timber use within the UK, with incentives for the sawmills to retool to take advantage of that over time.

“5. The Public Forest Estate (PFE) is the biggest timber supplier to the domestic market. It has a key role in shaping the market, for nature, carbon and business (timber production) benefit. Discuss what the PFE will be in the future and the key role of the FC as the regulator, not just for the forest industry but also for maximising multipurpose benefits.

“We have to start working together, now, to see what is possible. If we don’t start, we will never start.”

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Opening the Q&A, David Lee asked Baroness Young what the common ground and the delivering of multi-benefit projects look like?

BY: “Look at planting to make sure there is not one set of forests for carbon and others for production. Can they fulfil a range of objectives, including biodiversity and restoration? Most native broadleaf planting is seen as something to be done to get a licence to plant commercial crops. I would like to meet an estate that looks at multipurpose forestry, planting a crop for biodiversity, a crop for carbon reduction, a crop of softwood and a crop of hardwood. Doddington is a beginning, although it does not have a hardwood crop. Can we go further, so that it is not just softwoods that are seen as the commercial crop?”

David Lee noted that some environmental voices do not countenance productive forestry. “How do we talk with those who do not engage with timber but talk about environmentalism while being prepared to import 80 per cent of the wood this country uses?”

BY: “For the last 40 years, we have been in our bunkers and they have become unhealthy. I would like to see if we can get some demonstrations going that do both.”

SG: “I welcome what Baroness Young says. We visited Doddington together and saw multipurpose forestry paid for by softwood. Now we must create multipurpose forestry paid for by hardwoods. The new Tree Strategy may facilitate a joined-up approach.”

Geraint Davies MP asked: “How do we move hardwoods from woodfuel into higher value streams?”

SG: “Putting hardwood into higher value markets, like construction, will deliver carbon benefits and create more jobs throughout the supply chain. Zac Goldsmith supports this and support is needed in the Strategy. By taking actions together, we can start establishing successful multipurpose hardwoods, support high-quality jobs and remove carbon from the atmosphere.”

TB: “We don’t burn good hardwood. [In this country] successful hardwood forestry is mostly down to luck. Coupled with ADB, [deer] and squirrels, what is felled is [generally] only good for woodfuel. This comes back to management, seed quality and to years of taking the best of the crop and leaving the worst, denuding the quality of broadleaf woodlands. French oak forests are models of commercial hardwood forestry as a crop. They have a time horizon of 100–200 years. Every 40 years they remove the worst, leaving the best (genetically) as the final crop. They replant with these (genetic-best) acorns and start all over again.”

Lord Carrington asked: “How do we attract people to grow and maintain woodland without putting in place the financial incentives to encourage them?”

BY: “If ever there was money available, it is now. Carbon markets changed things and government is focussed on maximising public payment for public goods: carbon reduction, biodiversity improvements and support for growing some British timber to reduce reliance on imports. Given these three things, there will be more money in the system than ever before. The time to try this is now.”

David Lee asked: “How can we start moving things in the right direction in terms of policy incentives? How can the England Tree Action Plan offer that practical support?”

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SG: “Deal with strategic issues (deer and squirrels) and then incentivise people to manage woodlands. Manage those we already have into better condition – there are opportunities, especially with the charitable route. Create markets, not just in construction but also in managing our woodlands for higher biodiversity and higher carbon benefits. Government is facilitating this. Also, use wood in new, innovative ways. We need the Action Plan to state how we start the change and for government to work with us to deliver these solutions.”

Many attendees asked: “Should CCF be a bigger part of the solution?”

SG: “It is not about hardwood or softwood, conifers and broadleaves. It is about working in a way that delivers quality outcomes. It is the same for silvicultural regimes. Identify what we want to achieve from the woodlands we manage and how it can happen. Then work on the basis of evidence, with people who want to deliver multipurpose forests.”

Responding to Chat Box comments on alternative uses of poor-quality hardwood, Baroness Young said: “Look at the current timber crop while thinning, restructuring and following the French model, thinking ‘what alternative products might the timber be used for?’ Government subsidises market-making research in agriculture, now we need this in forestry. Be clear on the outcomes wanted from multipurpose forestry. If one or the other competing interests gets the upper hand, everyone will return to their bunkers.”

Responding to Lord Carrington’s question, Tom Barnes said: “Wood values are rising now. As shortages bite, prices will rise very sharply.”

David Lee asked: “What overall messages does the forestry industry want government to say at a global level at COP26?”

BY: “I would like a land-use strategy. Trees grow on land. The amount we have is finite. We need to use it in the most effective way.”

SG: “Two things. 1. We need to stop deforestation overseas as part of achieving our carbon targets. Only part is as a result of the demand for wood, but some is, so we must take that on board and produce more here. 2. Move from setting targets to delivering against them.”

TB: “Start now. To achieve the targets set for 2030 or 2050, the UKCCC says we have to be doing them right now.”

Closing the Q&A, David Lee said: “By bringing our speakers together, we have shown that there is real interest towards working together.”

Closing the session, Ben Lake thanked the speakers and attendees for their contributions. “We will meet again in June. By then, the England Tree Action Plan will have been published, the 2020/2021 tree planting figures will be out, and we will have the implications of the election results in Scotland and Wales.

“I look forward to another exciting year as APPG chair, as we continue to push the importance of forestry and wood in the year of COP26. See you again.”

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