Graham Hilton, Coed Cymru, has written this article on Welsh timber supply chains. Why are they are failing to deliver as well as they could and what can be done to improve the situation?
Anyone seeing the recent headlines about problems with timber supply from Welsh Forests (Timber firms have ‘no confidence’ in NRW forestry division – BBC Wales 29/1/2019) could be forgiven for thinking that this is something new, or short term.
In practice the current crisis was predictable and has been widely signposted over recent years. The answers however, as with so many public issues today, are not straightforward, and do not lie solely at the feet of Welsh Government.
The Home-Grown Homes project, led by WoodKnowledge Wales on behalf of Powys County Council, is exploring ways to work with Welsh supply chains to improve the delivery of timber-based housing. The project hopes to achieve a consequent improvement in the outlook for both the expansion of timber supply from Welsh forestry and the local industries that process it.
Despite its image as a nation of rolling hills and extensive forests, Wales, like the rest of the UK, is at the bottom end of the European League table with less than 15% of land use devoted to forestry and woodlands compared to the European average of 37%.
Wales has a series of vibrant wood processing industries, from large scale sawn timber and panel board production, through timber frame manufacture, to a huge range of joinery companies creating everything from staircases to furniture. These industries have historically relied upon a high proportion of imported timber. The UK is the second largest importer of wood in the world, which brings with it a large amount of uncertainty and price volatility, particularly in the current political climate.
This uncertainty is not limited to supply however. A survey of its members by the Structural Timber Association suggested that 60% of the timber frames manufactured in Wales were exported, in part due to difficulty in securing orders with local customers. With Scotland building over 80% of its housing from timber frame, compared to Wales where the figure is just 30% this is a clear opportunity for growth.
Improving demand for construction timber in Wales will bring several benefits in terms of security for processors, carbon sequestration, and healthy attractive homes. The prospects for those benefits feeding down to Welsh forestry, seem, at first look, a little less promising.
Availability and Opportunities for Timber in Wales
A brief look at the timber available from Welsh woods, shows why local processors are concerned. The percentage of available supply, of the key commercial species (Sitka spruce), which has been harvested each year, has risen steadily. With availability due to fall in coming years, existing levels of domestic supply appear unsustainable, and although these species grow as quickly in Wales as anywhere in the world, anything planted today, will not directly address shortfalls for several decades.
Luckily volume of timber is not the only story. There are a number of steps which may yield both short- and long-term benefits.
Firstly there remains a significant proportion of woodland in Wales that is not actively managed, with a recent Royal Forestry Society report suggesting that a further 139,00 tonnes of wood could be released per annum (creating 64 jobs and over £4M of GVA) if management were extended to 75% of Wales’ woods (from the current 57%). This could incidentally improve environmental outcomes by managing for biodiversity and amenity within future plans.
Secondly, there are a range of timber resources available across Wales, beyond the plantations of Sitka spruce. These are not necessarily suitable for the larger processors and will often carry technical challenges or restrictions in their end use. There is for instance 7M tonnes of ash in Welsh woodlands, facing an uncertain threat from ash die back. While not suitable for outdoor use, in its raw form, huge steps have been made in recent years in the processing (e.g. heat treatment) and use of this material. Both the resource and its potential processing are quite fragmented and bringing this into management may require a deal of coordination across the supply chain.
This may be balanced in part by the third opportunity for Welsh wood, market value. Not only is Wales faced with a dwindling supply of its main species, little of this supply currently addresses the needs of higher value markets such as construction. Large sawmills in Scotland direct twice as much wood into construction as Wales, and England twice as much into fencing, while Wales has twice the use in pallets and packaging of the other two.
Of the 1.5M tonnes of wood removed from Welsh Forestry every year, only 3% ultimately finds its way into the construction market.
The Opportunity for Welsh Timber
It has been suggested that Welsh, and indeed English timber is unsuitable for construction use. The Home-Grown Homes project is addressing the validity of these concerns and will look, via social housing construction projects throughout Wales, at the ability to address quality concerns through careful selection, processing and knowledge of end use. The value of the end product, will not always translate to the margin for the processor, nor the value of the standing tree, but by focusing on the clear and present need for timber in Welsh construction, the project hopes to offer certainty and value to all the stages of the supply chain, and to play its part in stimulating use of the existing Welsh woodland resource and build the case for its future expansion.