Vastern Timber                            DEF0024

Written evidence submitted by Vastern Timber

 

Growing the UK timber industry

 

Background

 

My name is Tom Barnes. I am the managing director of Vastern Timber. Vastern is one of the biggest hardwood sawmills in the country, and we specialise in locally grown wood. We work with timber that is mostly sourced from within 100 miles of our sawmills in Wiltshire. We produce timber cladding, beams, flooring, and sawn timber.

 

Vastern Timber is a family-owned firm employing approximately 50 people. Working with locally grown wood has been our business since 1904. We process over 10,000 cubic metres of broadleaf and conifer logs each year, about 80% of which was grown in the UK. More detail on our sourcing policy can be found at Vastern.co.uk

 

We developed and manufacture Brimstone - the UK’s first thermally modified, British-grown timber. Brimstone was developed to offer a locally sourced alternative to imported hardwoods.

 

We use a process called thermal modification to transform fast grown, ‘lower grade’ timbers like ash, poplar, and sycamore, into a durable timber that is suitable for exterior use. More information about this process is at BrimstoneWood.co.uk

 

I consider myself to be an environmentalist; my degree is in environmental sciences. I'm also a part-time filmmaker, producing a series called Wood for the Trees. These films about wood, trees, the future of woodlands and challenges they face, can be watched at WoodForTheTrees.uk

 

How well is the UK government managing its plans for the domestic timber industry in tandem with meeting its woodland creation targets and related climate change biodiversity and other environmental goals?

 

As far as I am aware the government has no plan in place for the domestic timber industry. As a member of the industry the impression I get is that the timber industry in England is too small to worry about.

 

Tree planting targets are repeatedly missed in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, by many orders of magnitude. Those trees that are planted now will not be available to the timber industry for at least 40 years, and with the current lack of appropriate planning and forest management, these woodlands are unlikely to produce any timber of a suitable quality for the construction market. At best they may yield some firewood. For an example, see the complete lack of any productive woodland within the 200 square miles that the National Forest planted twenty to thirty years ago, and was sponsored by DEFRA.

 

For the trees and timber that we do have in this country, there really is no coherent plan to maximise its value, and there is no plan to encourage those using timber in this country to favour British-grown timber.

 

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (UN-REDD) is an internationally recognised programme adopted at COP21 under the 2015 Paris Agreement aiming to reach net-zero through financial incentives, to increase sustainability and reduce deforestation and degradation of forests globally. The UK government pledged to support this programme, along with being a signatory to the Glasgow Declaration on Forests at COP26, pledging conservation efforts and protection for forests and woodlands across the globe.

 

In terms of meeting woodland creation targets, we as a nation are failing dismally on that front. In England last year, approximately 2,500 hectares were planted (against a target of about 12,000) and if one factors in problems like larch disease and ash dieback, England is probably in a state of deforestation, not afforestation. This situation is embarrassing for a country positioning itself as a global leader on climate change and biodiversity loss.

 

Despite this knowledge, there is still no coherent plan to link woodland creation, timber production and low carbon construction in England. Scotland has a plan, and Wales has a plan (see Woodknowledge Wales) although Wales is also failing to plant new woodland. It seems that  our trade body CONFOR is listened to less than some other voices regarding rural issues and land use.

 

England desperately needs a plan to link woodland, timber and low carbon construction. 

 

On targets related to climate change, biodiversity, and other environmental goals, I think the consensus is that quite a few goals have been created, but there's been very little progress towards any of them and much greater accountability is required. The growing cost of living crisis is likely to push these targets further into the background.

 

 

Does the UK government have an adequate understanding of the future demand for timber including what tree species should be grown?

 

The UK government does not demonstrate a sufficient understanding of the future demand for timber. In the discussion of planting trees, there is a fixation with native-grown broadleaf species in this country. There is an important part to be played by native broadleaf species, but when one considers the number of these species that are suffering from disease and drought, it is hard to envisage a future where our woodlands are healthy, resilient and producing building or joinery grade timber. Current Government policy of limiting productive conifers to 20% of all new planting in England will diminish further our ability to satisfy timber demand from local woodlands.

 

Unless some of the naturalised species are included in the ‘allowed’ list - such as sycamore and sweet chestnut, and a range of quicker growing conifers such as Douglas fir, western red cedar, hemlock and spruce - there simply will not be any timber available for future use. Diseased ash, drought stricken beech and sick oak cannot in any way be considered productive for anything other than firewood and biomass.

 

The government appears to misunderstand that the most commercially productive species are conifers. When conifers are discussed the focus tends to be sitka monocultures and on that basis all conifers are dismissed as being devoid of biodiversity and other benefits. What is conveniently ignored is that in England most conifers are grown in mixed woodlands which are teeming with life and are truly beautiful places to visit - see Longleat Forest. Conifer trees such as Douglas fir, larch, hemlock can all be part of a vibrant mixed continuous cover woodland.

 

The fact is - and this is drawn from our perspective of running a sawmill which cuts mostly broadleaved species - conifers make up the bulk of what is required in construction. This is based on what the market wants, and what the construction industry wants to build with. It is not practical or ‘sustainable’, in the purest sense of the word, to think that we can replace forty year old conifers with 100 to 200-year-old broadleaf species for the future construction market. The timber simply grows too slowly.

 

The government currently fails to appreciate which timber species are required or how to create an industry that can satisfy the demand for timber in future. Personally, I am a big advocate of the need for a National Timber Strategy. It is something that many in the timber trade feel is urgently required. Our trade organisation - CONFOR: The Confederation of Forest Industries - is behind the idea and we believe that DEFRA can see a potential value in this too.

 

In my view The England Tree Action Plan (ETAP) missed substantial content on the local production of timber. There's plenty in the document about biodiversity, soil, water, and native broadleaf species, which are all important. However, it is as important to think clearly about future timber production and where wood will come from in the future. Can we rely on importing all of our timber in the future? Recent events and future trends tell us that this is a risky strategy. Without sufficient timber we are unlikely to achieve targets for decarbonising construction.

 

Additionally without a substantial productive element to our woodlands we will not realise the full potential and value of this part of our landscape. Furthermore, without the money generated through timber sales, which is estimated to be around eighty percent of overall income for managed woodlands,  these woodlands  will become increasingly underfunded, resulting in a lack of management and related conservation work.

 

It is not realistic to believe that Government grants and additional money from Carbon credits will be enough to fund the management of  woodlands in the long term; especially if woodland cover is to be increased in line with Government pledges.

 

It is essential to consider the production of timber at the point when woodlands are designed and created. It is wishful thinking to believe that in a few decades, construction and joinery grade timber will appear out of native broadleaf woodlands where biodiversity or carbon capture has been the management priority.

 

Woodland must be planted and managed right from the beginning to yield timber of the quality that is required by the market. It's critically important that we are honest about the sustainable timber situation. If we want home-grown timber in 40-years’ time, then we really must plan for it now. It must be a priority.

 

We need a National Timber Strategy that lays out what is required and the benefits of producing UK grown timber.

 

 

Does the UK government, working with devolved administrations, have an effective joined-up plan with appropriate incentives to increase the production and use of sustainable domestically grown timber in the UK to reduce its reliance on imports?

 

There are currently no incentives, for any company, project or individual, to use locally grown timber in this country.

 

For centuries, Britain has imported a lot of wood from all around the world, and in some ways, we've forgotten how to use the wood we already have here. It appears that the government doesn't understand the importance of domestically grown timber and is doing nothing to stimulate demand for timber from local woodlands.

 

Our mission at Vastern Timber, is finding ways to use the wood that grows locally and process it to make it more desirable for the market. Our thermally modified timber - Brimstone - is an example of this approach. We use heat to transform locally grown wood into a more durable timber, providing the market with an excellent homegrown alternative to imported hardwoods. These approaches, using modern methods to improve local woods, could be further  incentivised to encourage greater use of locally grown timber.

 

Are there sustainable sources of biomass for UK energy generation either from imported or domestically grown wood or pellet or wood chip and how can future demand be met from sustainable sources?

To an extent, there are sustainable sources of biomass, although larger demand does often skew the market and encourage the burning of sawmill-grade logs rather than thinnings and sawmill residue.

Adding a few geographically distant plants also increases road miles for the chip or residue. A more sustainable model could be to encourage more small and medium-sized plants that are sized to match supplies of local chip. This is common in other parts of Europe.

 

Sawmill-grade logs should never be burnt for energy when they could be going into long-term uses like construction where the wood and the carbon will be locked up for decades.

 

UK power stations should not be built or renovated to take pellets, because we do not produce wood pellets in this country. Stations that burn pellets - such as Drax - have to import all their pellets from abroad, which makes a mockery of a green fuel. If we are going to subsidise and build biomass power stations in this country, they should be designed to burn domestically produced woodchip and there should be regulations to ensure that this chip is a by-product and not a primary product from the woodland.

 

Over the last few years, the biomass market has regularly collapsed, which has greatly impacted woodland owners’ ability to thin their woodland and sell the thinnings for profit which would allow further funding for woodland management.

 

How effectively is the UK strengthening the resilience of its tree stock to ensure it is resilient to the future impacts of climate change as well as to pests and diseases?

 

It is fair to say that the Forestry Commission is doing some work on this front. Organisations like the Future Trees Trust (which Vastern helps to support) are carrying out good work to identify resilient trees to  ash dieback and to find strains of other tree species that can prosper in the challenging conditions expected over the next few decades.

 

The Sylva Foundation, working alongside the Earth Trust, have established Paradise Wood as a centre of excellence for sylviculture and woodland management, demonstrating effective planting strategies and species selection to produce high quality timber, showing that afforestation projects can produce useful hardwood timber within a timeframe of 40 - 50 years.

 

 

More and deeper work is needed, and it must be based around the acceptance that the climate is rapidly changing, along with growing conditions. It is, I believe,  a mistake to be so fixated on a very select number of native broadleaf species; most of which are already suffering from either disease or drought. We must spread the choice and consider other species and other provenances to give our woodlands the best possible chance of surviving the inevitable changes to our climate and environmental conditions.

 

 

The effect and effectiveness of UK efforts to

reduce global deforestation.

In what ways and to what extent are UK value chains in the form of public procurement good services or private sector contributing to global deforestation?

 

As a country, we are relatively responsible. There is a reasonable uptake of certification schemes like the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) or Grown in Britain (GIB) to make sure that the timber we are using is from reputable sources. There is legislation in place to make sure that imported wood is at least legal, so as a country, we do a comparatively good job of making sure our wood is from reputable sources, even if the carbon footprint of timber importation is large.

 

Clearly, as the UK is the second biggest timber importer in the world, we have a huge responsibility to make sure that we are not supporting sources of deforestation.

 

September 2022