Business comment: Building Scotland's sustainable forestry future

Figures released recently by Forest Research show that the UK is the second largest timber importer in the world (China is the largest).

Trees displaying autumn colours in the Scottish Highlands. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

In the context of the climate emergency, this is not a comfortable or sustainable position to be in.

But it also represents a huge opportunity for Scotland and our timber producers and timber processors, to rapidly increase planting of commercial forestry to protect ourselves against the impact of future timber supply shocks.

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However, negative perceptions of commercial forestry – as monoculture, conifer forests devoid of life and biodiversity – remain widespread.

These views are often based on superseded practices that are now 40 years out of date.

While most people agree about the need to plant more trees to mitigate climate change, the argument regularly becomes polarised, opening up unnecessary division between rewilding “champions” and timber business interests.

The fact is, we need both native and productive forestry.

No one would disagree that broadleaf forests are inherently special; a third (32 per cent) of the trees we plant each year at Forestry & Land Scotland (FLS) are native broadleaves.

However, there is a growing need to consider the value of, and the contribution made by, productive forestry, species such as Sitka, Lodge pole pine, Norway spruce and Scots pine.

Currently, home-grown timber makes up around 33 per cent of the UK market for construction timber. The UK overall, imports around 80 per cent of the timber it uses each year.

We are essentially relying on other countries to meet our timber needs.

This points to a huge opportunity for growth for the UK timber industry: to ensure that we are less reliant on imported timber, by growing more of our own. And yet, in Scotland, forest covers less than one fifth of our land area. In the rest of the UK it is less. The average for the European Union is 38 per cent.

While we are largely self-sufficient in fencing and produce good quantities of packaging and pallets, the real growth opportunity is in construction grades, especially with the shift to greater use of sustainable housebuilding.

There is significant, unmet, domestic demand for more C16 grade, kiln-dried carcassing timber that’s used in structural applications such as roof battens, floor joists and studwork for partitioned walls.

Scottish-based timber manufacturers could potentially triple production to meet current and anticipated future demand for structural timber.

Already this year prices have risen 30 per cent across the board with some items such as plywood sheeting, up 60 per cent, as house builders and related industries struggle to secure supplies.

This represents a considerable opportunity for the sector to expand substantially into the remaining 67 per cent of the market which is currently imported, predominantly from Scandinavia, Latvia and Germany.

This opportunity now has the added impetus of worldwide pressures on supply, especially post Lockdown, as the construction and house building sectors start to recover.

Sweden is recording the lowest stock levels in 20 years and this trend is likely to be exacerbated as climate change, wildfires, tree diseases and pests affect other big timber producing countries.

Fresh pressures will also come to the fore: transport and energy costs will increase, emerging economies around the world will need more timber and timber producing countries may be required to use more of their own timber at home - and export less - as they seek to meet stricter climate protocols and net zero targets.

We can attempt to compete for diminishing supplies on the world market against growing economies such as China and India, or do something to reduce our exposure to these forces, by planting more commercial forestry now so that we are more self-sufficient in the future.

Public forestry in the UK, first came into being to avert the crisis of a timber shortage during wartime.

We now face a climate crisis that – similarly - calls for forward planning in forestry to secure future supplies.

Scotland is well placed to mitigate the risks by stepping up its commercial forestry sector and increasing the proportion of its land area that’s forested, to European levels.

However, forestry is a long-term proposition: most productive forestry has a lead time of approximately 40 years (for Sitka and some other conifer species) and Scots pine can take 80 years to reach maturity.

So this really is an issue – and an opportunity - that we need to seize now.

At Forestry & Land Scotland we are already planning the forests of the future: developing new techniques for growing, planting and harvesting trees. This year, we will plant 25 million trees: we routinely re-stock the land that we currently manage while acquiring land for new, productive and native woodland creation.

We aim to bring three million tonnes of timber to market each year – and this figure could increase as we plant more forests.

In planning the forests of the future, we are also investigating a greater diversity of species that can adapt to global warming while developing new techniques for growing, planting and harvesting trees.

For example, we are planting more Norway spruce than ever before because they are good at adapting to warmer temperatures.

Timber supply globally will become increasingly competitive.

Scotland has an opportunity - now - to plant more new productive forests, or risk being a “green” country at the mercy of future timber shocks, and one that cannot supply timber for its own needs.

- Mick Bottomley, Forestry & Land Scotland, head of marketing and sales

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