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 www.griffonholidays.com
This is Ian’s nineteenth Guest Blog here and you can access all the others through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.
Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.
Without repeating too much of what was said in the introduction to part one, the political parties in the recent general election all mentioned the need to plant lots and lots of trees.
I argued in that introduction that we needed a clearly defined strategy for the millions (if not billions) of trees that were promised. Trees are planted for different reasons and therefore, I argued, there is a need for different strategies for different objectives. The three objectives that were mentioned in the manifestos were planting trees to combat the climate emergency, to build up a timber resource and to build up a conservation resource. There are lots more that we could think of I am sure, but I am going to concentrate on these three, very different, objectives.
Part one looked at a strategy for combating the climate emergency and this blog, part two, will look at a strategy for building up a timber resource. As with the first part, I have written this to provoke, because when it comes to trees, it always amazes me how complacent we are about them and their vast differences to one another when it comes to how they can fit our objectives. I should also reiterate (just in case you haven’t read the bit at the top about me) that I do not work for the Forestry Commission and haven’t done so for some time.
Forestry is often a dirty word, mentioned with disdain by many who live on the greener side of life. Yes, there have been some very serious errors in the past in relation to forestry in this country and perhaps these errors are still ongoing, but surely that is a reason to have a new clearly defined strategy for building up a timber resource (basically forestry) if we are talking of planting lots of trees for this purpose.
When I worked as a ranger for the FC, I was invited to a party at a house held by a warden for a large national NGO. It was mentioned that I worked for the dark side, a reference to my employer and nothing to do with Darth Vader. I contemplated this point as we all sat out on the decking (conifer) in his garden, we were sitting on garden furniture (tropical hardwood) and looking out at his garden and shed (conifer) surrounded by a high fence (conifer). Behind us the back door (tropical hardwood) opened in to the kitchen complete with its work tops (conifer), its kitchen units (conifer), its table and chairs (conifer). Through the internal door (conifer) was the lounge complete with sofas (conifer) and bookshelves (conifer) replete with books (conifer). The coffee table (conifer) had a number of glossy magazines (conifer and china clay) artfully arranged on it. Up the stairs (conifer) there were yet more internal doors (conifer), more books (conifer) and a cardboard box (conifer) of disposable nappies (conifer) in the bathroom with its toilet seat (conifer) and paneled in bath (conifer). The bedrooms had nice furniture, wardrobes (conifer), a dressing table (conifer) and of course beds (conifer).
It was a fairly modern house, certainly post war, its internal stud wall batons, its ceilings, its floors, its roof joists, the supports the tiles were attached to, were all conifer. I would hope you can see the point I am trying to make.
There is a well known saying about people living in glass houses, when it comes to forestry that saying could be changed to just people living in houses. It is easy to criticise forestry, it is also, I would suggest, hypocritical for most of us to do so, as we are the consumer driving the market and the market is very much for cheap conifer timber that is grown commercially in what is known as forestry. All of us have bought it, it is in all of our homes, you may even be reading this and getting hot under the collar sat on a chair at a table or a desk all of which are forestry products.
The simple fact is, we in Britain love forestry grown timber, we can’t get enough of it. We consume more timber products per capita than virtually any other nation, yet we hardly grow any of it ourselves, we import it in vast quantities, in 2015 we spent £7,500,000,000 on importing timber products. We are the third biggest importer of timber products in the world. Aside from the tropical hardwoods, that are still imported for our nice dining tables, our plywood, our garden furniture etc. the majority of the timber we import is sawn softwood (timber from conifer plantations). In 2015 we imported 6,300,000 cubic metres of it. To quote the wisdom of Weller, Foxton and Buckler, the public gets what the public wants. And we, undeniably, want forestry.
You might not like that, but it is true. Because it is true, it emphasises the need for having a clearly defined strategy if we are going to be planting trees to build up a timber resource. Over the last few decades successive governments have sold off large chunks of the public forestry estate, happy to stop producing it ourselves and seemingly content at importing the timber we need from other countries, so why are politicians suddenly mentioning planting trees to increase the timber resources?
It may come as a shock to learn that politicians aren’t as stupid as they often seem. You may have noticed that we are leaving the European Union (it was a news story that got a bit of coverage recently…), the politicians are aware of this and are also aware of where 92% of our sawn softwood imports come from. How did you guess? Yes, the EU. The government is committed to building millions of new houses over the next twenty or so years, new houses that will use vast quantities of sawn softwood timber – virtually all of the 6,300,000m³ of imported sawn softwood goes to the building trade. Hence why politicians are suddenly talking about increasing the timber resource.
Basically, to cut a very long story short, we need forestry to supply the timber we consume in vast amounts, we either grow it ourselves, where we are able to control how it is grown, harvested and transported, or we import it from other countries where we are unable to control how it is grown, harvested or transported.
It is surely preferable and much more sustainable to grow some of this timber in our own country and therefore I hark back to the point of this blog. We need a clearly defined strategy for planting trees that will increase our timber resource to ensure that it is done in the best possible way. Growing trees for timber is very different to growing trees for wildlife and (as argued in part one) for combating the climate emergency. To grow good quality timber you need to select the right trees for the right conditions that will supply the right end product. The right end product for us is sawn softwood, i.e. we need to be growing conifers. Hardwoods do not produce the timber, or the other products derived from it, that we need or use, if they did we would be using them.
Unfortunately in Britain we are severely limited when it comes to the number of native conifers that we have, with only Scots Pine producing viable timber and this species’ ability to grow productively depends totally on the conditions in which it is grown. It is very specific in what it requires in soil, climate etc to produce a viable end product. Those of you who garden will know that your garden will grow really good examples of some plants, but not others. Trees are just plants, and to produce good quality timber that we can use as a resource, they have to be in the right place for them and not necessarily us.
We automatically have an aversion to large numbers of trees that aren’t native to this country, but we need to see trees planted for timber as a crop, just like we see wheat, potatoes and sunflowers, none of which are native to Britain. Agricultural land could well be a good place to grow the timber we need, agroforestry could be a very good way of combining timber and food production. I don’t know, but I do know that if we are really going to plant millions of trees to increase our timber resource, we rapidly need a new specific strategic plan to ensure that we not only meet that objective, but that we also do it properly. Just planting a load of trees into the ground with the vague idea that they are increasing our timber resource is not going to work
This plan needs to be in place already, it isn’t, timber takes decades to grow and we are already in the process of leaving the trade agreement that supplies us with most of our forestry products…