Voices of Forestry is a new series of features offering analysis and insight direct from some of the most well-known and respected figures across the forestry industry. Each month, Forestry Journal will provide a platform for a different writer to share their unfiltered opinions on the subjects that most matter to them and the sector in which they work.

Kicking off the series with his personal views on the issues currently facing the world of forestry – particularly the politics – is Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, the trade association for the forestry industry in the United Kingdom.

SPEAKING with a range of members recently, a consistent theme has emerged – strong demand for timber and new planting is creating challenges; for example sourcing wood or labour, and rushed new regulation.

As this is an industry which has grown significantly over the last 20–30 years, some of these challenges are what I categorise as ‘growing pains’ – as demand increases, the required resources aren’t always in place and the process of growth becomes painful until that resource is secured.

Regulation is another matter, however. It can come at any time and be driven by a number of factors. At the moment, media-based attacks by people who are fearful of a return to 1980s levels (and types) of planting appear to be prompting the production of rushed ‘guidance’ on topics such as bird surveys and ground cultivation in England and Scotland.

It’s important that Scottish Forestry and Forestry Commission England are robust and confident in their response to these media criticisms. They need to stress that policy and practice will be driven by good research and evidence and that the process will be managed speedily, but not rushed.

As well as the challenges created by growth there are endemic challenges that I see in the industry.

Woodland owners express their frustrations to me about not knowing what the market value of their timber is, about choosing the right contractor to employ, and, if they have any aspirations for quality hardwoods, then what can they do about squirrels and deer. These then hamper management and the marketing of timber.

The contracting base faces significant challenges, and I speak to people here who feel ignored and at the end of the queue for support. I also speak to many people in the rest of the sector who recognise the vital importance of the contractor base. The challenge appears to be getting everyone to agree how we can work together to identify and deliver solutions.

My starting point for this article was listing some of the challenges created by what is an opportunity – further growth in planting and wood use. Work is ongoing to tackle those challenges as well as the endemic ones I also listed above.

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As a starting point, the Confor team have worked hard for many years to ensure that politicians and their advisers recognise we’re an industry. This may seem strange, but I’ve lost count of the number of politicians and civil servants I’ve met over the years who think about trees only as an environmental issue. This means they’re instinctively anti-conifer, they question why we should harvest trees of any type, they’re relaxed about introducing regulation that needlessly destroys jobs, and above all they think in simple opposites – good and bad forestry, good and bad trees.

Thankfully this is changing, particularly in Scotland, but increasingly also in Wales and England. Governments and agencies are now working with the sector to tackle long-standing challenges of skills and recruitment, research and innovation. Workforce surveys across Great Britain are taking place to inform and target public funding, while innovation funding – modest for now – is being made available. This is progress, but we still need to do more as an industry to fund and influence research and to provide better market and statistical information – in those we lag behind other sectors and our competitors overseas.

Real strides are being made in tree breeding, timber qualities and even potential control of grey squirrels – further funding can accelerate this work and demonstrate to governments how serious we are, which in turn can bring greater public funding.

A continuing activity for Confor has been changing perceptions about our industry – presenting an accurate image of a green, hi-tech, low-carbon industry. This is vital if we are to get the public and politicians on side and to counter influential critics whose mindset often seems stuck in the 1980s. With support and understanding comes better regulation, and more and better targeted support. And it assists in making our industry more attractive to new, young entrants.

Progress has been made in changing attitudes, but we’re a relatively small sector – we can’t force people to listen or the mainstream media to run stories simply because we believe they should. We need to be consistent in the messages we want to communicate and package those in a way that makes them attractive to the media. And we can do more to link that with our wood-promotion activity – Wood for Good has produced fantastic assets as part of its ‘Wood CO2ts Less’ campaign which we’re using in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow.

I’ve always been a great believer in co-operation to overcome challenges. If we are to realise this sector’s potential, then we have to continue working together and sometimes do that better. Perhaps ‘working together (even) better’ should be our motto for the next 20–30 years…

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.

What do you think? Share your thoughts by emailing editor@forestryjournal.co.uk. Feedback will be published in next month’s issue.