Updated: Nov 18, 2018
The Daily Telegraph - Saturday 29th July 2000.
'Our forests are in crisis, thanks to a strong pound and a legacy of bad decision-making. Daniel Butler looks at how they can be saved '
THE world depends on trees. They recycle our waste gases, converting the carbon dioxide that we each exhale (not to mention that produced by our cars, power plants and industry) back into life-giving oxygen.
Properly managed, they also provide building materials and leisure facilities, while simultaneously providing a valuable habitat for some of our most important wildlife. We know all this when we protest about the rape of the rainforests, but we seem oblivious to the ecological disaster on our own doorsteps.
Trees cover 33 per cent of Europe, yet Britain has just 10 per cent and now its woodlands are in crisis as foresters face their most severe recession in a century.
Sawmills are closing, hundreds of skilled workers are abandoning the woods for better-paid alternatives and thousands of acres of woodland are falling into neglect.
As with the better-reported farming crisis, the underlying problem is sterling's strength. Although we were already importing 85 per cent of the 50 million cubic metres of timber we consume annually, the high pound has led to a collapse in prices. Between 1998 and 1999, for example, Forestry Enterprise's income from harvested timber slumped 33 per cent from £11.21 to £7.59 per cubic metre. This means that in many areas the sale of mature trees does not even cover the cost of replanting - let alone provide a return for years of investment - and in contrast to agriculture, forestry is poorly subsidised, each hectare attracting just 10 per cent of the money available on average to farmers.
Problems have been compounded by attempts at central planning. The Forestry Commission was founded in 1919 to grow pit-props in case of submarine blockade. This led to the blanket planting of exotic sitka spruce in marginal upland areas: "Market conditions had changed slightly by the time the trees were ready for felling," says Alec Dauncey, the director of Tir Coed, a broad group of Welsh countryside organisations working for appropriate new woodland. He is sceptical about the track record of centrally planned woods. "It's nothing new, of course - when there was a shortage of oak for ships in the 19th century we planted them like mad, only for steel hulls to come along."
The sitka plantations are now maturing, but many are yielding poor-quality timber, suited mainly for paper and woodboard industries. In contrast there are serious shortages of higher-value timbers from mature larches, Douglas fir and some hardwoods.
While the pound's strength should be a relatively brief problem, the long-term implications of the current crisis could be devastating. Steady income, dependable timber flows and constant management are vital for healthy forestry. Contrary to popular belief, quality wood doesn't simply grow on trees. It comes from carefully managed plantations which are continually thinned to provide space and nutrients for prime specimens. In the case of an oak, this takes a minimum of 80 years (150 years for a really prize specimen).
The current slump in prices threatens this continuity of care. It means wood owners cannot afford routine maintenance, and the industry is starved of young blood. As a result, woods become choked as the developing canopy stifles shrubs vital for wildlife. Meanwhile, the biggest trees are starved of nutrients and light, adversely affecting quality.
The warning signs are there already. When prime beams were needed to repair York Minster and Windsor Palace, it took a nationwide search to find suitable trees. If we do not act immediately, our children may be unable to fix the next fire-damaged historic building while the biodiversity of our woods is stifled by neglect.
Richard Goodman: a profile of a forester
"I feel choked - I really care about our woods, but the industry that's been my life is being killed around me. There are fewer people working in the woods and they're getting older. Forestry is a young man's game - hard and exhausting - and most people quit by the time they're 40. But today I don't know anyone who's under 20 and that leaves just a dwindling band of us older men."
Richard Goodman, the founder of Goodman Timber, is bitter as he surveys the industry he loves. A forester all his life, he buys standing trees in and around Wales and the Borders, felling them to sell direct to the mill. Over the past decade he has seen profits tumble. The figures make grim reading. In 1983 the contract cost of timber was £4 per cubic metre more than it is today: "That was when wages were £70 a week and fuel £1.50 a gallon," he says bitterly. "A good worker now earns £400 and diesel is pushing £4."
The worst of the decline is recent, however, thanks to a strong pound which has slashed the cost of imports. "Three years ago, spruce saw logs sold for £57 a ton, now it's £39," he says. Although machines have increased productivity, each is highly specialised and can cost well over £100,000: "And we get no subsidies."
There have been political mistakes, too: "The last Government sold off younger and younger trees to maximise revenue," says Mr Goodman. "In the 1980s we were felling 70-80-year-old trees. That gradually came down to 40 and now whole blocks are clear-felled at 35." As a result, timber has got smaller, but the older mills are still geared to big beams: "There's no shortage of demand for 60 year-old larches," he explains. "But they are simply not there."
The latest blow comes from Health and Safety Officials, who insist every operator must be certificated for each machine. In the Goodmans' case this means £2,500 per worker: "How can anyone afford to train someone who might well not be there next year?" he asks. As a result, Goodman Timber is now very different from 15 years ago: "In 1986 I had 17 people working for me; now it's just one," he says. "I'm all in favour of maintaining high safety standards, but I just can't invest in people because the return isn't there."
"I can't really see much of an industry left in 10 years' time, but at least I'll have retired by then," he says wryly. "So I'll leave the optimism to my son - the business is now in his name and he's following his star into the woods." Caroline Donald
Jim Bettle: a success story
Steve Howard of the World Wildlife Fund has strong views on barbecues: not about what sauces to use or whether you should prick the sausages but about the charcoal. Some kinds of charcoal benefit the environment and some do exactly the opposite. If you don't know where your charcoal has come from, the answer is likely to be badly managed woodland, such as the mangrove forests of south-east Asia, where trees are being cleared in their millions without being replaced.
"Charcoal is produced wherever there is a reasonable supply of wood," says Mr Howard. "Where there is no control of the land, the wood is almost free and that is when it is produced unscrupulously." Supermarkets such as Homebase, Tesco, Great Mills and B&Q, however, now sell charcoal which has been approved by the Forestry Stewardship Council, a British body that has become the world kitemark for responsibly managed woodlands. This guarantees that the charcoal comes from sustainable forestry and that the people producing it are paid properly and work in good conditions, with good health and safety standards. But the best way of ensuring that your barbecue is ecologically friendly is to buy British. Ninety-four per cent of charcoal sold in this country is foreign. Not only does this mean that more energy is used importing the stuff, but it denies people work and woodland much needed management.
Many of the woodlands in Britain are too small for FSC certification (it is an expensive process, geared towards large-scale operations), but bodies such as the British Charcoal Group, a self-regulatory association, exercise control of production.
Jim Bettle set up Dorset Charcoal in 1996, and as a member of the British Charcoal Group, is passionate about the many advantages of British charcoal. Charcoal making in this country goes hand in hand with good forest management: a coppice that has been thinned of spindly and sickly wood will allow the remaining trees to grow more sturdy, light coming in will encourage flowers and plants and, with them, wildlife will flourish.
Mr Bettle works closely with a local forester. Together with his two assistants, he sets up three portable kilns next to the wood that has been cleared or coppiced. The thinned wood, rather than being burnt on site or carted away for the same purpose, is chopped up, left to season for a year, and then packed into kilns. It is left to burn down slowly for 24 hours, before being bagged and graded. Formed from English hardwoods, such as ash, oak and birch, Dorset Charcoal has a 90 per cent carbon content, as opposed to 60 per cent of many imported charcoals.