TIMBER import levels defied predictions and outperformed expectations in 2023, new industry research has found. 

Despite the challenging end to the year seen across the construction sector, import volumes were actually higher in three of the six product groups, with softwood imports just outperforming the levels seen in 2022 with growth of 0.8 per cent. 

Overall, the volume of the main imported timber and panel products ended 2023 a little lower than in 2022, down by 2.2 per cent on the previous 12 months.

The main timber and panel products sectors saw mixed fortunes throughout 2023, according to Timber Development UK's (TDUK) analysis.

After a slow start, softwood imports gained impetus in the second half, to end the year 1 per cent higher. Hardwood, plywood, particleboard and engineered wood products imports were all lower in 2023, but OSB import volumes were significantly higher (up 19.4 per cent) and MDF volumes, too, were 2.2 per cent higher than in 2022.

TDUK head of technical and trade, Nick Boulton, said: “Now that we have the full import data for 2023, we can take a longer-term view of the import performances right across the main timber and panel products sectors. Despite a difficult year in 2023, the growth path for nearly all timber and panel products remains positive.

“As we move into 2024, the outlook for the timber sector is cautiously optimistic for the rest of this year, with indications of modest growth to come as the UK economy begins to recover from the technical recession we experienced at the end of 2023."

Volumes in the first half of 2023 trailed those seen during 2022, but modest improvements in the second half of the year made up for much of this lost volume.

The scale of the cumulative deficit of all import volumes in 2023 compared to 2022 reduced each month starting from the middle of the year, until the final month when December brought weaker volumes across the board than were seen in December 2022.

Import volumes in the final quarter of 2023 were 1 per cent below the same quarter in 2022.

The four quarters of 2023 saw a greater stability return to the market, with substantially less volatility in imports compared to each of the four quarters of 2020, 2021 and 2022, during which time the timber market fluctuated significantly.

Nick added: “The ability of timber products to weather the instability and adverse influences of the first three years of the 2020s and emerge with virtually all products remaining on a positive growth path is a testament to the strength and resilience of the UK timber industry.”

The UK is the world's third-largest net importer of timber, with 81 per cent of its wood coming from abroad.