A personal reflection by Dainis Dauksta, technical manager, Woodklnowledge Wales
Conifers grow superbly across many of the microclimates and soil types found in Wales, producing a widely varying range of wood types. However, Wales is caught in a paradox because tropes, assumptions and misinformation still dominate discussions about using Welsh softwoods in construction.
Producing Britain’s finest
Some of Europe’s largest living conifers grow as small stands located in remote parts of Wales but few Welsh firms have been able to create business models which can take advantage of this specialist resource. Large homegrown or ‘’oversize’’ conifer sawlogs have tended to be sold to specialist English sawmills such as East Brothers near Salisbury. Arguably, even Wales’ principal softwood resource, the Sitka spruce sawlog, is not fully understood or utilised within Wales and under-informed commentators still use derogatory language about the ‘’quality’’ of homegrown spruce.
Regardless of such subjective judgments, the British spruce sawmilling sector supplies fit for purpose sawnwood products into demanding modern markets. The UK now produces more conifer sawnwood than Latvia, historically one of Britain’s main suppliers.
Focus on processing efficiencies
Over the last 50 years sawmills across the UK moved away from converting broadleaved species because the markets for homegrown hardwood products went into a steep decline which continues today. The homegrown conifer resource has given British sawmillers the opportunity to modernise and process straight simple conifer stems far more efficiently than converting British hardwoods. Nowadays, sawmills can process softwood sawlogs at line feed speeds of over 100 metres per minute and some chipper canter headrigs can operate at considerably higher line speed. Modern sawlines allow operation at economic scales which make commodity softwoods extremely cheap compared to a generation ago when timber merchants charged up to three times current prices (allowing for inflation).
What if we made homes from it?
Around 700,000 cubic metres of softwood sawlogs are produced in Wales annually. Most of this resource is Sitka spruce and we now know that at least 95% of Welsh Sitka spruce sawlogs will convert to C16 strength class construction timber. A proportion of C24 could also be produced economically.
Roughly speaking, 600,000 cubic metres of sawlogs will yield over 300,000 cubic metres of sawnwood. If only 100,000 cubic metres of that yield was strength graded in Wales this would build 10,000 timber frame homes using 10 cubic metres each. 200,000 cubic metres of non-strength graded sawnwood would still be available. From a theoretical 600,000 cubic metres of softwood sawlogs the remaining 300,000 cubic metres of coproducts (such as sawdust and chipwood) can be utilised currently at Kronospan in Chirk to make wood composite panels.
In other words, all of the 600,000 cubic metres of sawlogs could be utilised in Wales if the Welsh construction sector was able to rise to the challenge. BSW claim that around 40,000 cubic metres of C16 spruce can be processed at their Newbridge on Wye sawmill annually but this output is not directly available for Welsh timber frame firms despite repeated requests.
Dismantling the quality argument
This simplified analysis is made more complicated by the continuing debates about ‘’quality’’ of homegrown softwoods when compared to imported softwoods from the Baltic zone. This straw man argument tends to be utilised by individuals or organisations with historical agendas or close links to Swedish and Baltic timber merchants. In practice, homegrown spruce has been demonstrated to be fit for purpose in timber frame construction.
Over 50 years ago Bruce Zobel, an American forester and wood scientist, made the point that misinformation dominated perceptions of timber grown in modern industrial forests such as our Welsh spruce forests. Today, scientists such as Dan Ridley-Ellis at Edinburgh Napier University confirm that the growth rate of British conifers does not correlate strongly with strength-grading yields. Simply stated, we can utilise almost all of the conifer timber that we grow in varying applications.
Most importantly, utilising quality Welsh softwoods to build homes will help fulfill the Senedd’s aspiration to create a net-zero carbon construction sector within Wales.
Beetles unbalancing commodity markets
Many spruce forests across mainland Europe and Scandinavia are under attack by bark beetles whose numbers have increased exponentially under drought conditions caused by climate change. Traumatised German foresters recently announced that Germany’s parched forests are nearing ecological collapse. Sweden has 7 million cubic metres and Czechia 30 million cubic metres of beetle-ravaged spruce to cut. The resulting oversupply of spruce sawnwood has significantly unbalanced European softwood commodity markets.
British sawmillers were cutting at break-even or at loss-making output prices for many months until the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted world softwood supply even more dramatically than bark beetles. European spruce has been selling at record low prices whilst US and Canadian softwoods have been traded at record high prices.
Cheap imports, price hikes at home
Against this complex backdrop Welsh timber frame contractors are complaining that the home sawmilling sector is unreliable and imported spruce is cheaper and easier to obtain. The current situation is far from normal. We need to redefine the roles of our conifer plantation forests and their downstream processing industries in terms of carbon sequestration and storage.
Preparing for less reliable import markets
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to create management problems for the British sawmilling sector. Like any other sector, we need to define the new ‘’normal’’.
In the long term, we may not have the easy access to European, Baltic and Scandinavian softwoods we have enjoyed for centuries. The EU zone has been overcutting softwoods since energy production from woody biomass became fashionable. Furthermore, yields from EU industrial forests will decline after this current glut of diseased spruce processing. Will EU partners be less disposed to selling softwoods into British markets as their own demand rises?
Demand pressures in the net-zero carbon economy
If China is to succeed in turning around their 20th century coal-based economy and create a 21st century net-zero carbon economy, their timber imports are likely to increase substantially. Recently, European prices rose slightly as China increased their procurement of European timber.
If climate change in Wales progresses as predicted by the Hadley Centre, Welsh-grown spruce may transition from commodity to premium softwood. In the face of global warming and concomitant epidemics there is no reason to assume that the status quo can continue.
Managing Welsh forests for future need
Welsh forest management will need to change. The Phytophthora ramorum epidemic has already devastated Welsh larch forests and the forestry sector will need to move away from planting large blocks of even aged single species forest. Some academics suggest that mixed species, uneven aged forests will be more resilient. Existing data does not necessarily support this and other strategies are being discussed. Certainly, forest blocks, whether of single or mixed species will need to be smaller in scale. Individual stands of industrial species will need some social distancing in order to decrease risk or speed of disease spread.
What if freestyle forestry was the answer?
Welsh foresters will need to design new forests that can be managed in the face of waves of weather events, pests and pathogens; principal interventions may need to be predominately reactive. Some central European foresters are calling this ‘’freestyle’’ forestry. The narrative about growing our own forests for making new homes will be continually altered as events unfold. The only certainty is that uncertainty will rule sustainable forest management. In spite of this, we have to start planting now for the future. Mistakes will be made and circumstances change but surely that is better than not planting at all?