Uncovering Britain’s Hardwood Dilemma

What is the Future of our Woodland.?

I was travelling home on the train to Edinburgh from King’s Cross when it suddenly dawned on me: there were hardly any trees. I grew up hearing of tales, that a squirrel in Old England could travel from one end of the country to the other without touching the ground. Now field after field went by with only the occasional spinney. So I switched on my laptop and using the train wifi, SLOWLY started researching the Forestry Commissions latest statistics.

Did you know that Britain is the third largest net importer of forest products in the world? Exceeded only by China and Japan; that Britain has the lowest density of woodlands of any other country in Europe?  I discovered that the average forest cover of EU member states is 38% of their respective landmass; in the UK it is only 13%.

So, what happens when we pull out of the European Union? Unless Sterling recovers, the cost of imported timber is going to go through the roof; and what is worse, there is no immediate solution. Trees don’t grow at the same rate as wheat or barley. Even if we do plant acres of new forestry we are not going to see any results in our generation. THE SITUATION IS EXTREMELY SERIOUS … ESPECIALLY FOR US CABINET MAKERS.

I was so alarmed by the prospect that I dug further and further into the Commission’s statistics and eventually found a ‘50-year Forecast of Hardwood Timber Availability’ (see reference below); and what an eye-opener it is! The current output of hardwood timber in Britain is 400,000 cubic metres per annum; but because so much of the broadleaf forest is relatively young (53% is less than 40 years old), the Commission anticipates that this will rise by 2042 to 2,700,000 cubic metres, before declining to an annual level of around 1,400,000 by 2065. All well and good, I thought to myself, until I realised that the French are producing 5,000,000 cubic metres every year from sustainable managed forests. We are just playing at hardwood production, as the Commission’s report makes clear. IF WE WERE TO MANAGE OUR FORESTS FOR MAXIMUM YIELDS, THE OUTPUT WOULD RISE SIX-FOLD.

It would be easy to blame this dire situation on the Forestry Commission, but the truth is that they manage less than 10% of the country’s broadleaves. The responsibility for British hardwood production lies with the private sector which owns in excess of 1.3 million hectares of broadleaf trees and controls the rate of supply. Are they going to sit on their hands as they have done for decades or is Brexit going to have a dynamic effect? Last month, we identified the reason why Britain produces so much ‘pippy oak’.

Most hardwoods are grown in hedgerows or in open space where they form numerous side-branches: to prune a stand of broadleaves is a costly and time-consuming business. It is quite simply uneconomic. But if the price of imported timber begins to escalate, it might just be the catalyst that makes private landowners sit up and pay more attention to their forests. After all, there is no stronger motivation than the smell of a decent profit. So please, landowners, do us a favour: GET OUT THERE AND MANAGE YOUR ASSETS. IT CAN ONLY BE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE.


Next month we are going to discuss what the private sector can do to generate a regular supply of hardwoods for cabinetmaking.

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