Guest blog – Seeing the wood for the trees by Ian Parsons

Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees.  Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura.  For more details see

This is Ian’s third Guest Blog here and you can access all the others through the Guest Blog Archive – click here..

Ian’s latest book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.

What is sustainable forestry? What does it mean for a country’s forestry to be sustainable? Is British forestry sustainable?  The answer to that last question is perhaps yes. The Forestry Commission (FC) has the required certificate from the FSC (Forestry Standards Council) to say that it’s woods are sustainably managed.  That is a good thing.  The problem is that the FC doesn’t own all the woodland in the country. The bad thing, is that overall in the UK, only 43% of our woodland meets the requirements of the FSC when it comes to sustainability. Perhaps therefore, the answer to the question ‘Is British forestry sustainable?’ should be no, as the majority of British woodland, 57% of it, isn’t certified as being sustainable by the FSC.

The problem with the word sustainable is that it can be defined in many, many ways.  The FSC doesn’t define it by how much timber is grown in a country compared to how much is used. If that was the case, Britain would never be certified as sustainable.

Britain is one of the largest consumers of wood products per capita (timber, paper etc) in the world, yet the percentage of British land covered by woodland is one of the lowest in the world (excluding countries like Iceland etc).  Only 13% of our land is wooded. To give you an idea of how low that is, most of our European neighbours have between 30 and 40% woodland cover, whilst Finland and Sweden have 73 and 68% respectively.  Obviously, therefore, we import a lot of our timber requirements.  In fact, we import the majority of the timber we require and we spend big on it too. In 2015, we spent £7,500,000,000 on timber imports. That’s a lot of wood.

Britain is the third biggest importer of timber by volume in the world.  Only China and Japan import more than we do, we don’t grow anywhere near the amount of timber we use. To me, that doesn’t sound very sustainable at all.

Our largest timber import is that of sawn timber, primarily softwood (the name for timber from conifers), we imported over 6.3 million cubic metres of it (roughly speaking 6.3 million tonnes) in 2015, the vast, vast majority of this timber is used in the building industry – all the new homes that you see being built around you use this timber.  The building industry also uses particle board and fibre board in large quantities. (Most non timber people tend to call these products names like chipboard and MDF etc, I apologise for using jargon!)

Last year, the government estimated that we need to build 5.3 million new houses in the next 25 years, these will require a lot of timber and the majority of this timber will have to be imported.  So where does the timber we need to build our houses come from?  According to the latest figures, the European Union provide 92% of our imported sawn softwood timber, 93% of our fibre board and 100% of our particle board.  In other words, we are pretty much reliant on the EU for our house building timber requirements.  Good job we are a member of the EU then and don’t need to pay tariffs on it.

Wanting to build 5.3 million homes and wanting to exit the free trade agreement that provides the timber for these houses doesn’t seem very sustainable to me.


24 Replies to “Guest blog – Seeing the wood for the trees by Ian Parsons”

  1. I was out yesterday looking for Goshawks. The amount of clear fell Sitka Spruce was amazing. So much so that in a few years it will be used by harriers. We are fortunate to own all this land and we also have a say how the land will be managed in the future. The brake up of the age structure of this spruce will mean even more wildlife and soon we will be able to do the same drive and have the possibility of seeing radio collared Lynk!

  2. Excellent article – it’s long disturbed me how willing we are to import other people’s forest products without asking too much about how they were grown.

    Minor quibble; the proportion of UK woodlands that are FSC certified will not include a lot of land that is unmanaged from a timber production point of view, either deliberately (some nature reserves etc).
    Nor will it include a lot of privately owned woodland that is managed but where the timber crop is too low value, too small, or too intermittent to justify the time and expense of certification. And it’ll exclude neglected woodlands too, often small ones, and neglect isn’t always a bad thing.

    43% FSC certified is pretty good, all things considered.

    I’ve seen Canadian and Finnish forestry and UK commercial timber production compares pretty well in terms of environmental standards. Not a patch on France or Germany mind, but then they have always started with a profitable harvest that handsomely covers the cost of establishing the next crop. Since our woodland low point of the 1600s we have been paying to plant trees and then waiting 60 -100 years for any income from them.

    1. Hi Jbc,

      Thanks for your comment and I appreciate your minor quibble! In the past, when the annual forestry statistics were published by the government they would include a percentage figure of ‘productive woodland’ and ‘non productive’ woodland. For some reason they no longer to do this and instead publish the percentage figure for ‘sustainable’ and ‘non sustainable’. I don’t know why they have stopped differentiating between the productive and non productive in their figures. Incidentally they have also dropped the percentage figure relating to how much of the timber we consume in GB is from imports, which is interesting.

      I guess the problem of how you define productive got too much for them, after all there are some that would say that a woodland managed as a nature reserve is productive in terms of the benefits it delivers to the community and beyond, whilst there are others who would say that it is not productive at all. that is another debate methinks!

  3. Japan is an interesting case – one of the biggest importers of wood, wood products and also about 66% of its area is forest. It also has a bad reputation for managing the impacts on communities and the environment of its overseas forest industry.
    I think trade can be acceptable but there are clearly problems with ensuring appropriate standards (and encouraging processing in the exporting country to ensure the benefits are as equitably shared as possible). I am not sure what the tariff rates will be on imported wood and wood products from the EU if we revert to WTO trade rules – I imagine they will be higher than at present and higher for processed products than they are for logs or simply sawn products. Will see if I can find out.

  4. Should we be looking for alternatives to unsustainable imported wood?

    Like John Miles above I was out looking for Gos yesterday in commercial plantation forestry – one pair of buzzards seen and no stick nests found [of any species] in literally square miles of searching…..

    I always think in these discussions…what could we be doing with all that unproductive ground?

  5. Excellent article – it won’t really apply to construction timber, but regarding paper we could do a hell of a lot to reduce the need for plantation forestry anywhere by doing all we can to cut paper use and use recycled fibre – sadly even many conservation orgs don’t do this. Funnily enough was just reading an excellent article by Mandy Haggith about this yesterday, we are incredibly dependent upon foreign imports, but at the same time a lot of paper for recycling gets sent to China whilst demand for recycled paper has actually went down here! Adverts claiming virgin fibre toilet roll encourages tree planting doesn’t help. Where are the voices from the organisations supposed to be supporting the 3Rs?

    1. Yes – not only cut down on paper usage (unless it’s an alternative to plastic), recycle paper and don’t forget to buy recycled paper products e.g. toilet paper, kitchen paper, stationery, insulation etc.

  6. Another excellent article, Ian. Thank you for these crucially important facts and figures.

    Yes, we have a housing crisis. It’s a national disgrace. Thank you for mentioning the 5.3 million houses that must be built across the UK.
    Here’s another figure: the percentage of land surface of England that is actually built on is only 2.27%. All we need now is another tiny fraction of that figure to accommodate everyone.

    One tuppenny thought:
    Here, on the acid Sussex Weald there’s loads of self-sown 70+ year old Scots Pine – it could go for building timber but none of the local sawmills have the stress testing gear. If it can’t be tested it can’t be used for building even though it’s obviously decent timber. It seems such a waste. (But perhaps that thought is a bit twee given the massive scale of things in your article?)
    Yes, Brexit is going to cause a huge problem re importing all that desperately needed building timber. Thanks for highlighting that.

    1. Hi Murray,

      Thank you, glad you liked it. The local saw mill issue is a widespread problem in many parts of particularly England, they don’t have the investment in them for them to be able to produce timber that is stress tested or in large quantities etc etc. This means that the timber has to be hauled large distances to the large industrial mills. For example the timber grown in Devon and cornwall, usually (but not always) is hauled to mills in Wales for processing. There are obvious environmental problems with this, but from a timber buyers point of view it also increases the cost, especially now the pound has dropped against the dollar and the fuel price is subsequently going up and up. This can mean that it is not viable to fell some stands of timber or to go back and pick up the last half load of timber that is cut and stacked in the woods.
      Sustainable forestry.

  7. I am afraid that, as with agriculture, we cannot expect an increasing need for forest products to be met from abroad.
    It is immoral to expect, what are often less developed countries, to trash their environment so we can run half our countryside as taxpayer funded wildlife havens. An earlier blog by Mr Parsons mentioned the current craze for hardwood furniture and it’s effect on East European Oak forests.
    The estate I am employed on is FSC certified, we have a number of grant aided native woodland regeneration areas, in the real world these are now lost to meaningful timber production.
    Necessary mixed coniferous clear fells will soon start to impact on long established Goshawk nest sites, putting an end to some remarkable nest spacing over recent years. However they should be able to adapt, I will just have to walk further to find them.
    Much of this ground will I believe be stocked with Sitka , but a fair bit of oak is also planned,and we are looking to increase the area planted.
    There is no option but to increase the national, productive, forest cover.
    I will start looking for Gos at the weekend.

    1. Agree. And interesting comment.
      Gos, they are now quite frequent round here in Sussex but I’ve never seen one.
      What’s the trick in finding them?

        1. Unfortunately, tilting and maneuvering 4.5 – 5 Kg of head on vertebra C3 (or is it 1 or 2?) is a lot of effort these days.

      1. Murray,

        Your best bet for Gos is to look for them when they are displaying, in the south west this can start in late December but January and early February are probably the best months. Chose a sunny day – frosty mornings are good, and choose a good vantage point that gives you views over large blocks of woodland. They will have settled on their sites now so will be difficult to observe (they are not called phantoms of the forest for nothing!). The ones I used to monitor would generally lay around the 1st of April so talk of tramping through forests trying to find the nest now or over the next few weeks isn’t great in terms of the potential disturbance that could be caused at a time when the female in particular can be a bit skittish. They are schedule 1 birds so presumably all above hold a licence to disturb them and know what they are doing, but personally I would recommend leaving well alone now until after the eggs have hatched before trying to pinpoint nests if there is a reason for doing so in the first place.

        1. Thanks for that, Ian. I’ll try that panoramic, frosty morning method. Thanks for the dates; it looks to be too late for this year.
          Agree: obey the law and leave nest sites alone.

  8. At the risk of provoking the ire of a famous fictional Torquay hotelier, one of the problems with importing a large amount of timber is the organisms that might hitch along for a ride … one thinks of the transatlantic imported fungus carrying elm bark beetles that yawned, stretched their legs and then flew off into the countryside c.1967 to wreak havoc. To be fair to the Americans I believe we were the first to export elm disease to them from our earlier twentieth century outbreak, which then mutated and devastated elms in N America before being returned to sender. Rackham: Treating plants and timber like tins of mixing and up the world’s organisms has brought tragedy after tragedy.

  9. The Office of National Statistics states that 9.6% of the land area of England and Wales was built-up in 2011:

    The percentage is probably higher in lowland England than in Wales, and higher now than in 2011. This figure does not include areas where few people live, such as airports, industrial estates, motorways, or areas smaller than 20 ha, but it does include parks and gardens enclosed by buildings. The BBC figure is based on a narrower definition of ‘built-on’.

    1. Correct, the 2.27 % figure is the % of land actually built on, i e parks, allotments, gardens etc are excluded from this figure. I think the ‘urbanised’ or built-up area for England is now just over 10%. We only need another ~1 % to solve the housing crisis.

  10. Murray,
    There is still a chance of catching a bit of display, and the males will often soar up, especially if there are Buzzard or Raven about, while the females are incubating.
    Otherwise, I would take a steady stroll through suitable woods from mid June onwards, have a sit down now and again.
    Young birds about to fledge, and for some months afterwards, can be very vocal, their “wailing” can be distinguished from young buzzard with practice.
    However, if a nest is suspected do not approach as it could result in premature fledging.
    Good luck.

  11. I’m not an economist but tariffs are supposed to be a protectionist response to free trade that protect our indigenous industry. Scandinavian timber exporters will continue to sell us their timber after Brexit. At the moment we can import cheap timber from the EU tariff free. If the government choose to put tariffs on imports that would make it more viable to manage UK woodland for timber as prices would go up. I can’t see that happening but you never know. I hesitate to use the word sustainable as there is nothing sustainable about human population growth that is misappropriating the lions share of biosphere productivity at the expense of most other species on the planet.

    It seems to me that should the government wish, the UK forestry position could be improved by Brexit so although this blog has lots of useful information the premise that we can’t continue to import cheap timber appears to be unfounded.

  12. The protectionism is already biting – the exchange rate is everything to the UK timber industry and the Euro at under 1.2 to the £ is the best protection you could have – so my pension is safe !

    Timber is important – and in particular, as Ian draws out, the rarely discussed issue of exporting our environmental problems.

    However, timber played almost no part in the public protest over the forest sales fiasco – I wouldn’t want to claim to know the reasons behind people’s feelings, any more than I would over Brexit, but I suspect it was a combination of hard considerations – where will we go walking, mountain biking etc ? – and the more diffuse but hugely important feeling that this is something of value that we all own together – not a concept popular with the narrow, rich establishment that would like to think it has power in Britain at the moment.

    What are the real values of our sustainable forests today ? Personally, I think it is space for people, for health, not just mental and physical, but spiritual as well; the freedom of nature, away from the immediate pressures of commercialism, especially for our children to grow up in. It is almost the only pesticide free environment left – which may well be a bigger driver than the trees in the biodiversity value of our forests.

    As well as building our houses, new forests have the potential to transform the space around our towns and cities from a dumping ground, or the intensive crops rolling up to the last larch lap fence, we experience today, into places of renewal, adventure and wildlife on our doorsteps.

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