Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, Stefan Fellinger, general manager of Waldinvest and Wildökologie GmbH in Austria, offers a European perspective on the so-called ‘angel’s share’ lost to contractors selling by the tonne and makes a plea for fair play in the UK.

I have been involved in forestry for more than 40 years, studied forestry in Vienna and managed operations in large forests in Austria, Slovakia and Scotland.

At home in Austria, we are used to the idea of the forest owner producing timber. It is not common for the buyer to produce the timber. So the owner knows what he produces and this is very important. Then the forest owner or his manager sells the different products to different buyers: different kinds of timber, oversized logs to specialists, common logs, firewood, pulpwood, woodchip and so on. Everyone gets what they need.

Logs are paid for per m³, while industrial wood is paid for per absolutely dry tonne. ‘Absolutely dry’ means the lorry entering the factory is weighed. Then a sample of wood is taken from across the load and dried completely and you get paid for the absolute dry tonne – a fair system which works well.

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Logs are electronically measured. When this started it was in some cases to the advantage of forest owners, especially when snow was on the timber. That, of course, changed a long time ago. Now the measuring device is looking for the weakest point in the middle of the log and this is taken as a measure. There are still problems when there is no or only partial bark on the log and also with quality criteria. Some can be measured electronically, while others are still the decisions of man. These decisions should be objective but, strangely enough, one can see that they do, from time to time, correspond to the market situation.

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‘Holzhandels Usancen’ timber trade practices, agreed between forestry and sawmills or wood processing industries, are the basis of this measurement. All in all, it works well.
When I started working with forestry in Scotland 23 years ago, I was astonished to find timber of all kinds being sold just by the tonne. On one hand it seems fine as you can compare offers (at least you think so), but on the other hand it was too opaque. Usually, the timber is put on the open market, you take the best offer and then you should be happy. But in my experience it is not that easy. Was the timber really put on the open market or just offered to special buyers? Was all the timber sold or bad qualities buried and so on? But one gets used to selling timber per tonne. It is so simple, easy-going and one is tempted to become lazy.

But what I experienced last year was too much. In Argyll I sold my timber to one of the big timber traders for a good, fair price. It was a 37-year-old, healthy, good-growing forest without windblow. Harvesting started at the end of March and made good progress. The harvester finished its work in July, the forwarder in August. There was good communication and excellent work on site. But the stacks of timber at the roadside piled up more and more and the weather was dry. I kept asking for haulage to be sped up, but only received excuses: no lorries, sawmills on holiday (all the timber industry at the same time?), restrictions on the road, etc. In October there was still timber on site and the last timber lorry left in November. Over that very long time the timber grew dryer and lighter. We ended up with 7,197 m³ cut (I’m still waiting for the harvester printout) and 5,324 tonnes sold – and a conversion of 1.35 m³ per tonne! In June we told how we expected a conversion of between 1.13 and 1.2 m³/t. In our contract (a long, common contract between sellers and buyers) is written: “The purchaser shall remove the Products from Work Site no later than eight weeks after said Products have been felled.” Now I have been fighting for months to get more for so many m³ but so few tonnes.

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But I want to end with a good experience. In late summer/autumn, timber from my forest in East Ayrshire was harvested and hauled away. The forest was 51 years old and had some deadwood and windblow in it. The buyer and organiser of the harvesting was a big sawmill. Harvesting got underway in August and by the end of November, all timber was gone: 5,138 tonnes and 6,179 m³. The conversion was 1.20 m³ per tonne.
Since I’m already writing in a forestry magazine, some thoughts on timber prices. 

In Austria in early summer, 2020, I got €65 for 1 m³ green logs of standard size. In the region at the time we had a bark beetle disaster. One year later I got €120 for the same quality and there was hardly any bark beetle damage around. Some months later, the market for sawn timber was still around the same. Many forest owners started to produce timber and the price dropped to €102 per m³. The market for sawn timber was similar over all this time. Is timber a risky stock or digital currency which must go up and down? Or is timber a sustainable, proven, raw material which is always needed, and can be accurately quantified, more or less? Wouldn’t it be worth reducing these variations by making long-term contracts and committing to staying together in good and bad times?

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The ‘angel’s share’ is a side product of mature whisky, which is worth losing because the whisky becomes more valuable. The weight loss of logs, however, is not a side product of high-quality timber. The ‘sawmill’s share’ is purely to the disadvantage of forest owners and contractors. Logs should be processed young and fresh.

Foresters and sawmills must work together. We need each other and together we are strong. A change in payment from tonnes to cubic metres would contribute to a better relationship.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.