CONFERENCE: Calls to action for a future UK Government

13 December 2023

Changes to the Woodland Carbon Code could have damaging consequences for future UK timber supply, Confor’s policy conference heard.

Emma Kerr, Head of Carbon at Scottish Woodlands Ltd (SWL), described possible impacts of 2022 changes to the Code using a case study of a planting scheme (Tillyrie in Perthshire), managed by SWL for James Jones & Sons Ltd (JJSL).

She examined how the 86.96-hectare project, planted before the 2022 changes took effect, would have been affected by the updated rules if planted today.

The plan was UK Forestry Standard compliant, but under the new rules, the net productive conifer area would have been reduced by almost 50% to qualify for support under the Code's new 'additionality' rules.

JJSL calculated the current scheme could yield 37,732 tonnes of productive timber. The reduced conifer scenario under the new rules would yield 19,809 tonnes - a big loss when the UK needs more home-grown wood to secure its future timber security as global demand soars.

In turn, this would reduce the yield of 4,500 cubic metres of carcassing material to 2,262 cubic metres, and the number of new homes which could potentially be built from Tillyrie timber from 900 to 472.

"If you extrapolate our findings to all UK schemes where landowners are seeking carbon credits, the reduction of new productive conifer area, and timber for construction would be very significant,” Ms Kerr warned. “These are potentially very serious consequences when the UK wants to produce more home-grown wood and build more sustainable homes to reach net zero by 2050.”

Ms Kerr spoke in a session where industry experts suggested policy changes from a future UK Government to allow the forestry and wood industry to thrive.

Olly Hughes, Managing Director of Gresham House, warned investment could seep away from the UK without more clarity on what tree planting was seeking to achieve.

He said investors had a wide range of environmental, social and financial reasons for supporting planting, but added: “One common across all tree planting at scale in the UK is that you never end up with the original planting scheme proposed. This doesn’t work for anyone. If you start with one thing and end up with something else, you will only do it once.”

Mr Hughes said private capital looking for a home in forestry could be deployed very effectively when there was intense pressure on public finances. Yet, he argued, the current system forced planting schemes of all types to “contort” to fit existing rules.

“We must accept one size does not fit all,” he said, arguing that a range of standards based on clear, long-term objectives for carbon, nature and timber production were needed for planting schemes. “We need forests designed for specific purposes in defined areas with set returns that can be relied upon. Private capital has a way of working out how to solve problems if clear rules are set and stuck to. If the rules keep changing, it stops.”

Setting clear short and medium-term planting targets, with standards around each, to achieve Government objectives for nature, carbon and timber production would offer the clarity needed by investors, and mean “large proportions of tree planting would need no Government support”, he argued.

And he warned: “Every time rules or policies change, and every time subjectivity comes in, investors will lose confidence - and [find] other places to invest.”

Harry Stevens, Managing Director of Tilhill, said the challenge of reducing UK timber imports from 80%+ was challenging because markets and infrastructure had grown up around timber imports, creating vested interests.

The UK had also created a challenge for itself by growing timber at a grade which was good enough for the vast majority of construction uses, but sometimes rejected because architects and specifiers requested a higher grade, and chose imported material instead.

Mr Stevens identified “enormous potential” for home-grown timber in England where just 9% of new housing starts use timber frames, compared to 92% in Scotland.  Increasing the number of new housing starts using timber, and specifying the use of home-grown timber wherever possible were crucial factors in future change, he said.

Laura Henderson, Director of English Woodlands Forestry, said the “distracting irrelevance” of conifer v broadleaf planting must be replaced with site-specific approach based on clarity of what a planting scheme was designed to achieve in terms of timber production, biodiversity or other objectives.

She described the specific challenges faced in southern England including access to sites to fell timber, economies of scale and the huge difficulties of managing the threats from deer and squirrels.

“If 85% of broadleaf planting is going to woodfuel, we are failing to maximise the benefits.” she warned, concluding by saying that incentives needed to be directed at planting which addressed the challenges of the day.

Richard Hunter, Technical & Industry Support Manager of Confor, talked about the challenge of recruiting 2000 more people into forestry in England by 2025. One issue was tackling outdated perceptions that “cutting down trees is bad” which he heard from his own primary school age daughter. Taking the message into schools - for example by becoming a STEM ambassador - was vital, he added.

Alongside raising awareness, access to forestry courses was a problem with just a handful of the UK’s 225 colleges offering a forestry option. “Vast chunks of people can’t access forestry courses because the nearest college is so far away and it is cost-prohibitive,” Mr Hunter explained. “The UK Government needs to fund courses better; the private sector can provide equipment and sites but cash resources are needed to make it happen.”

Mr Hunter said the industry also had to be better at offering alternatives. There were 900 applications for 15 Woodland Officer posts with the Forestry Commission, he said, but the pathways weren’t there to ensure a proportion of the 885 people who weren’t selected could find different jobs or courses in forestry.