Scotland's timber industry will hit wood supply 'crisis point' in 20 years, experts warn at forestry conference; call for focus on planting of commercial species, move away from 'misty-eyed' view of forestry driven by environmental policy agenda
June 2, 2014
– SCOTLAND'S forestry and timber sector has to win hearts and minds by demonstrating that commercial tree-planting is at the centre of the modern forestry success story.
That was the view of several speakers at the conference Building on Success: The Future of Forestry and Timber in Scotland, who said tackling misconceptions about an industry supporting 40,000 jobs in Scotland was absolutely vital.
"We have a utopian view and hide the importance of productive forestry," said Dr Andrew Cameron of the University of Aberdeen. Commercial forestry was "an inconvenient truth", he argued, claiming that environmental considerations had overshadowed the key role of productive forestry, which provided the income to underpin social and environmental improvements and create modern forests. Cameron said Scotland was "very suitable for growing trees" but had only 18 per cent forest cover compared to the 37 per cent EU average. The Scottish Government's stated target (25 per cent of forest cover after 2050) was very challenging as current planting targets for commercial conifer crops were not being met, he said.
Raymond Henderson of Bidwells showed a graph of commercial conifer planting in Scotland from 2000, suggesting it would only reach around 50,000 hectares by 2022 on its current trajectory - barely halfway to the target. "This is not a recipe for confidence," said Henderson. "We need more commercial re-stocking and more new planting."
Cameron noted the big drop in new planting over last 20 years and criticised the lack of balance. Broadleaf species planted for environmental reasons had dominated, and no consideration was given to their future. He cited Belgium and Germany, where beautiful broadleaf woodlands combined biodiversity and wood production; however, 76 per cent of new planting in Scotland in 2012 comprised unproductive broadleafs. He claimed this was "an environmentally-driven exercise", adding: "Broadleaf planting is important but we are throwing money away on species of little value. We can grow productive broadleafs alongside commercial species like spruce and fir - we need to get our act together." Cameron said we were not planting commercial species because a secure timber supply was not seen as a priority. He added: "The public has been sold a misty- eyed view of forestry and the environmental agenda dominates policy. They get it much better on the continent; hundreds of years of experience of forest management in central Europe show commercial timber production, recreation and environmental protection are compatible."
Cameron claimed the implications of current policy were clear - a fall-off in commercial planting would lead to a supply crisis from around 2040, as identified by trade body Confor after the Forestry Commission's first 50-year timber availability forecast, published five weeks ago. Henderson said the long-term forecast was "not a recipe for confidence", while Hamish Macleod of BSW Timber said: "Within 20 years, we hit a crisis point and will need more wood."Confor's analysis suggested the supply "trough" beyond 2040 could see an opportunity missed to secure 1,000 jobs in Scotland and sequester 55 million tonnes of carbon. Imports would also need to increase, undermining the GBP1 billion annual benefit to the UK balance of payments of increased domestic timber production.
Macleod said smoothing the long-term line of supply was not simple and described the long-term drop-off as "a race to the bottom". He called for more ambition for a fast-growing sector; the market share of UK domestic timber rose from 13.5 per cent in 1980 to 40.9 per cent in 2012, largely driven by Scotland.Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, said forestry was "a success story for the economy, environment and people of Scotland", quoting a rise in wood production from 1 million tonnes in 1976 to 7 million tonnes in 2012. "Output growth has led to economic growth and we have seen annual investment of GBP50m for the last decade, increasing employment from the forest to the factory. We have world-class companies and facilities."
Goodall said forestry was a "modern, sustainable, environmentally responsible industry delivering rural employment and economic growth" - but had to do more to communicate its 21st-century face. This included stressing that it was the only carbon-negative traditional industry and highlighting its crucial role in the rural economy - but also showing commercial conifer forests were attractive places to visit, not the monocultures of the past, with open space and broadleafs and areas designed for biodiversity.
He highlighted the Eskdalemuir report by SAC Consulting, which showed forestry had three times the economic output of hill sheep farming and twice the spend in the local economy because it created better-paid jobs. Henderson said the report showed forestry traded at a significant surplus, while sheep farming traded at a loss after government subsidies were removed - and forestry received only around one-sixth of the state subsidies of sheep farming. But he stressed: "This isn't about putting sheep farms under the plough; it's about raising the debate on the value of forestry in land use in Scotland."
Henderson said the regulatory and grants system was a barrier to planting, but he thought forestry must continue innovating and growing independently, not rely on grant support - although it deserved a level playing field. There were calls to look at tax relief, but only in a careful, targeted way.
Goodall said there was potential for the sector to grow further, with a strong wood supply for the next 20 years, a renewable product delivering innovation and added value to landowners and communities - plus carbon and biodiversity benefits. But he also identified challenges - again, the fall-away in supply from around 2040 and gaining a 'licence to operate' by taking communities along with the sector.This meant tackling negative images of monoculture forestry by highlighting that well-managed forests are good for the economy, environment, local communities and Scotland PLC, Goodall said.
Forestry Minister Paul Wheelhouse recognised these cross- cutting benefits, highlighting the sector's contribution to several Scottish Government strategies - economic growth, land use, biodiversity and climate change. He highlighted pilot schemes in Argyll and Dumfries & Galloway to give local authorities clearer guidance on planting approvals and insisted he wanted to see "a greater proportion of productive species" planted - if it was "well- designed, resilient and productive woodland which fitted in with appropriate local land use".
Wheelhouse said his Government was working hard to re-balance grants and simplify bureaucracy. The minister recognised the "challenge to secure consistent supply" and added: "New planting is a key part of addressing that. We have committed to reviewing targets as we recognise the long-term nature of the industry."Jo O'Hara, deputy director of the Forestry Commission, said her organisation was "on the same page" as the industry and recognised new productive planting was needed. She praised the level of debate at the conference and said: "It has highlighted how complicated this is. It's not just about grants and what government does, but about driving markets and getting value back to the forest floor - and taking the public with us."We have to get productive planting up and that's what we are trying to do. There is competition with agriculture, but that's the world we are in. I think we are ready to turn the corner - but we have to be careful. If we bring forward schemes with 90 per cent conifers, that's when people think we have gone back to the 1980s."
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