Get talking – Importing wood

Materials World magazine
3 Nov 2015

With timber enjoying a renaissance in building and construction, Geoff Snape asks why the UK is importing so much wood, when more could be grown at home.

Geoff has 20 years’ experience as a civil engineer, from geo-resource projects to site evaluation and power. He’s also a professional pilot, and spent five years working in North Sea oil exploration.

Wood: a better way to use our land

There has been much in recent editions of Materials World concerning advances in the use of wood in many spheres of activity. If the benefits of such a flexible, environmentally beneficial and sustainable resource are to be optimised, the supply of timber needs to be assured. Around 30 years ago, I was appalled at the balance of payments with regard to imported timber, it being the same order of magnitude as the cost of the NHS.

The early Holocene boreal forests, which still exist across northern Europe and Russia, have long since been replaced in the UK by native Broad-Leaved Woodland (BLW) species, which had been the backbone of sustainability until the Industrial Revolution, when the former forests, just as in the USA, were laid waste for the developing iron and steel industries, building materials and expansion of agricultural land. The First World War requirement for timber to shore up the trenches, among other things, depleted many existing forests and forced the UK to introduce plantations of fast-growing conifers, such as spruce. These were spread in small areas across the UK, where conditions permitted. The former BLW areas have been reducing or almost static in area ever since. Although softwood plantation timber is useful in the paper, horticultural and fuel industries, it is not so useful in the production of hardwoods for building and other domestic uses (I have yet to see a convincing explanation as to why balsa is considered a hardwood). Tropical hardwoods, being some of the finest and most durable of tree species, are increasingly associated with rainforest depletion, and are not generally cultivable in the UK (although we do have plenty of rain). Different types of wood are associated with different end uses, with construction materials and house building materials being the principal uses.

The planting of hardwood to create new forests and re-create old ones is not as straightforward as it seems, with many ecological considerations and a surprising number of unknown ones. This should not be a cause for undue delay in implementation of forestry expansion. We have considerable land resources in the UK, which are presently used for many forms of agriculture, duplicating what can be obtained far more cheaply from elsewhere. Since the UK Government has always ignored any requirement for food self-sustainability (except partially during the Second World War), it should not be a politically difficult decision to expand forestry at the expense of certain types of low-yield agriculture. Arboriculture is, after all, a type of agriculture. Unlike the USA, the UK has no general policy of reforestation. If you fly into New York from the north, you will pass over many hundreds of square miles of forest, much of which is relatively recently planted. Other states have similar policies. Certainly much of upstate New York and New England resembles the forest cover it would have had prior to European settlement.

Almost all BLW in Britain is protected and will not disappear. This is not the problem, since it is the commercial and environmental forestry that is important in this context, rather than landscape preservation. The difference between forest cover over the UK and that over the USA and Europe is obvious from the air. The only other quantifiable source  is numbers from the Forestry Commission (FC) itself. Figures for tonnage of the different woods, both imported and home-grown, are available on the FC website.

I think it is something of an indictment on the long-term ineffectiveness of the FC that one of the only substantial new areas of BLW is being created and funded privately. Sixty percent of BLW is privately owned. The influence of the FC within Government must be small indeed to allow such waste of appropriate land and the tolerance of such a massive balance of payments deficit to continue. There is a long lead-in time for the harvesting of significant quantities of constructional timber from plantations. Government can encourage, far more so than it does at the moment (which is quite a lot), by appropriate agencies, tax breaks etc., the creation of environmentally sound and import-conscious timber sources to keep up with the anticipated demand. 

Geoff Snape MIMMM