SCOTLAND must take responsibility for its own future timber needs and protect the world’s fragile forests by planting more trees now, a major conference on forestry heard.
Economic analyst Clive Suckling said massive and growing markets, especially in China and India, will ‘hoover up’ global timber supplies so it is important for countries like Scotland to develop its indigenous industry to meet its own needs - and reduce potential pressure on forests overseas. It is well-placed to do that, Mr Suckling told delegates at Building On Success: The Future of Forestry and Timber in Scotland.
"Scotland's timber industry is small in global terms but extremely successful, and has shown major growth in the last decade, with investment of around £50m a year coming into the sector every year," said Mr Suckling. "How many primary sectors of the economy are showing this kind of growth?"
The growth in the forestry sector has been driven by an increase in available wood. However, Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood warned that businesses and policy-makers had to move quickly to secure the future of a sector which supports 40,000 jobs and adds £1.7 billion in annual value to the economy. He said: "With almost 60 per cent of timber still imported, we have to grow our domestic industry. Scotland is the engine-room of the UK forestry and timber sector and that means increasing domestic planting rapidly.
“Failure to act will also have consequences overseas as we seek to secure our wood needs in an increasingly competitive global market. Forecasts indicate that increasing worldwide demand for wood will encourage other countries to look at increased exploitation of their indigenous forest, including parts of the world where forests are under pressure."
The Scottish Government has targeted 100,000 hectares of planting - 60 per cent of it productive conifers that are harvested for the wood-processing sector - between 2012 and 2022. But industry experts have warned that the targets will not be hit due to a fall-off in planting of commercial conifers, which are used to produce everyday products like fencing, decking, kitchens and furniture.
Raymond Henderson of land agent Bidwells, one of the speakers at the event, showed delegates a graph of commercial conifer planting in Scotland from 2000, suggesting it would get barely halfway to its target by 2022. “This is not a recipe for confidence - we need more new planting,” said Mr Henderson.
Dr Andrew Cameron, a forestry expert at the University of Aberdeen, blamed a decline in commercial planting over the last 20 years on the fact that productive forestry had been side-lined, and pigeon-holed as not providing environmental benefit.
"We have a Utopian view and hide the importance of productive forestry, which has become an inconvenient truth”, said Dr Cameron. “The public has been sold a misty-eyed view of forestry. They get it much better on the continent; hundreds of years of experience of forest management in central Europe show commercial timber production, recreation and environmental protection are entirely compatible.”
Dr Cameron said Scotland was “very suitable for growing trees” but had only 18 per cent forest cover compared to the 37 per cent EU average - and would not hit the stated government target of 25 per cent of forest cover after 2050.
Hamish Macleod of large timber firm BSW, said things could get worse due to a predicted drop-off in timber supply. “Within 20 years, we hit a crisis point and will need more wood,” he said.
Mr Goodall said a Confor analysis suggested a ‘trough’ in supply beyond 2040 could see an opportunity missed to secure 1000 jobs in Scotland and sequester 55 million tonnes of carbon. Imports would also need to increase, undermining the £1 billion annual benefit to the UK balance of payments of increased domestic timber production.
He added: “Forestry is a success story for the economy, environment and people of Scotland - but we have to get across the fact that growing a commercial crop and managing our forests raises the income required to ensure those forests also provide the environmental and social benefits that people demand. It will also go a long way to helping us reduce our global footprint."
The Scottish Government has given its strong backing to the forestry sector and Environment and Climate Change Minister Paul Wheelhouse, whose brief covers forestry, told the conference that he recognised the “challenge to secure consistent supply”. He added: “New planting is a key part of addressing that. We have committed to reviewing targets as we recognise the long-term nature of the industry.”
Jo O’Hara, Deputy Director of the Forestry Commission, said the organisation was “absolutely on the same page” as the forestry sector and recognised new productive planting was needed.