Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, Harry Stevens, timber buying director at BSW Group, reflects on a year of challenges for his own company and the wider industry.

THE forestry and timber sector has had another relatively turbulent year, having been impacted by the same economic factors that many industries are facing – high inflation, higher interest rates, supply chain disruptions, skills shortages and wavering consumer confidence. On top of this, our sector is heavily influenced by what is happening in other industries. 

Take construction, for example. Lack of movement in the housing market has seen a reduction in the demand for new builds, which influences several sectors including our own. Even once-stable areas such as chip board, paper and biomass have suffered a weakening in demand. 

As a company that is involved with every element of timber, from seed to sawn product, and then on to recycling and reuse, BSW Group is uniquely placed to observe how these changes affect the industry.


All these market conditions have impacted the demand and price of products. The knock-on effect that we are seeing is the result of the state of play in a post-pandemic world. A reduction in the demand for timber over the last 18 months has meant that many harvesting operations have scaled back, downsized their workforce and equipment or even ceased trading. Across the UK, planting has decreased by seven per cent YOY to just 13,000 ha, despite net-zero targets aiming for 30,000 ha. The consequence is that there is now a lack of capacity to meet demand from published developers. This lack of capacity has meant the sector has had to import more timber at a time when average levels exceed 80 per cent. 

The lack of ability to harvest is now being felt in the wider forestry sector too. We have started to see a reduction in the demand for seedlings as the sector knows it will be unable to harvest as many as it previously has done. It has even translated to transplants having to be destroyed and burnt. 

There has also been the added complication around the continued rise in red tape when it comes to planting of new forests with the purpose of being harvested later down the line. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are causing issues in our sector, and we cannot fail to acknowledge the commercial impact it is having. We’re seeing a butting of heads on areas such as marginal farming ground and the protection of birds through the likes of the RSPB. While the government is adamant we need to plant more trees to hit targets, the lack of cohesion and joined-up approach between the state and commission means forestry isn’t reaching its full potential. 

While it’s been a tough year for our sector, there have been some positives and significant developments. There is now more timber being used in construction than ever before. The likes of COP26 did have an impact – though there is still a lot of work to be done – on the benefits and opportunity that timber offers, especially when it comes to our country’s drive for net zero. Once construction picks back up, we expect there will be a continued increase in demand for timber, especially home-grown timber, as companies realise the environmental benefits – something that we’ve been pushing for this year through thought leadership. 

As a sector, this year also saw us embrace science more than ever before. Individuals from across the industry are coming together to explore ideas such as somatic embryogenesis as a way of being able to significantly increase our seedling numbers, with clonal embryos being multiplied and germinated under laboratory conditions. This essentially provides a rapid, efficient means of producing thousands of identical copies from a single seed. For us as an industry, the benefits could be instrumental in helping us to meet targets through a better conversion rate and quicker turnaround time from seeds to plants than the traditional vegetative propagation route. 

Our own BSW Group business, Maelor Forest Nurseries, has invested in a state-of-the-art laboratory which was established with the help of world-renowned tissue culturist and tree-breeding expert Dr David Thompson. It is here that we have started work on somatic embryogenesis, with the aim of producing thousands of trees from a single embryo or seed.

There has also been further integration within our sector that sees companies working more closely together. For example, Tilhill (part of BSW Group) collaborated with Goldcrest Land & Forestry Group on a UK Forest Market Report to help transform attitudes towards home-grown spruce. Additionally, BSW Group’s acquisition of Scott Pallets shows that investment is still being made in the sector, even if in the middle of a downturn.

Forestry Journal: BSW was forced to close its New Forest sawmill this year BSW was forced to close its New Forest sawmill this year (Image: BSW)

At BSW Group, this year has also seen us make significant strides in our commitment to net zero. Alongside extensive LED retrofitting across sites (over 1,150 lights replaced with energy-saving LEDs), we’ve also reduced our carbon footprint by increasing the use of PHEV and electric vehicles – a notable step considering that transport alone accounts for 25 per cent of all carbon emissions across Europe. We’ve introduced more sustainable products to market, such as the pressboard pallet, which is made from sawdust and reprocessed woodchip by BSW owners Binderholz and sold into the UK through Scott Pallets. Operating in a sector like ours means we have a significant role to play in moving to net zero. And this is just the start. Our future will see us lobby for UK timber to become the go-to material for creating sustainable and affordable homes.

All this goes to highlight that there remains an undercurrent of positivity running through the industry’s veins. In the latter couple of months of this year, the positivity has also been evident through the likes of large graduate programmes being launched, not just at BSW Group, but across the industry.