The UK consumes over 17million m3 of sawn timber and sheet material each year, but only around a third of this is sourced from the UK. The UK is the second largest net importer of timber in the world, only behind China but with the demand for construction timber likely to increase in the UK and around the world, linked to commitments for net-zero carbon buildings by 2050, this leaves the UK in a position of significant material insecurity.
Unsustainable harvesting over many centuries left the UK with less than 5% forest cover at the start of the 20th century, and although this has recovered slightly, the UK is still one of the least forested countries in Europe at around 13% forest cover (European average is 42%). This, linked to the availability over the last century of good quality softwood timber from places like Scandinavia, and hardwood and plywood from the Far East, has meant there has been little incentive to increase planting in the UK.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has recommended that the UK Government adopt a net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target and on the 27 June 2019 the UK Parliament amended the Climate Change Act (2008) to include a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050.
Trees, woodlands and forests play a key role in greenhouse gas removal, and the CCC has therefore recommended that we should be aiming to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland in the UK every year. There also appears to be a realisation in Government that we do need to become more self-sufficient, but the targets in the 25 Year Environment Plan for England only call for 6,200 hectares to be planted per year by 2030, well below what many believe is required. The Confederation of Forest Industries (Confor) and others are calling for much higher targets of at least 40,000 hectares of new woodland to be planted per year by 2030 (18,000 hectares in Scotland, 10,000 in England, 9,000 in Wales, and 3,000 in Northern Ireland).
As pointed out in the Confor targets document, planting the tress is just the first step in a long process. These woodlands need to be managed over their lifetime to ensure good quality timber is produced. It is estimated that over 40% of woodland in the UK is undermanaged or left unmanaged, and this figure is considerably higher when just looking at broadleaf woodland.
For too many years timber from the UK has been seen as the lower quality alternative, but this is not necessarily the case. Over 20% of the structural softwood used in construction is from home-grown sources (generally C16 strength grade) with UK sawmills operating almost at capacity, with real concerns over the lack of material over the medium term. Engineered timber products such as cross laminated timber (CLT) are also in high demand and could be manufactured from home-grown sources if there was more supply. Also over 60% of the OSB and particleboard, and 40% of the MDF and other fibre board, are manufactured in the UK, largely from home-grown material.
To ensure there is recognition of this UK timber supply we must start to promote the quality timber we have. A number of UK sawmills including the largest softwood supplier, BSW, and the largest hardwood supplier, Vastern, have adopted Grown in Britain certification. This certification mark guarantees that the timber has been grown in the UK and can either sit alongside more established certification marks such as FSC and PEFC to provide just a provenance guarantee, or be used as a stand-alone responsible sourcing label (all timber supplied through Grown in Britain meets the requirements of the UK Government’s Timber Procurement Policy and is accepted by many of the UK’s largest contractors including BAM and Willmott Dixon).
So, with the increased visibility of UK grown timber, the threat of tariffs on imported products, and a continued focus on supplying a quality, value for money product, the future for home-grown timber looks promising – as long as we can grow enough trees and bring more woodlands back into management to keep up with demand.
For the complete feature read the Spring Issue of Timber Trader UK