The outlook for woodland management in the UK is bright according to Forestry Commission chairman Sir Harry Studholme, but there is no room for complacency. Mike Sims reports.
Forestry is in a much stronger position to weather Brexit than farming – but “one shouldn’t count one’s chickens”.
That was the upbeat message delivered by Sir Harry Studholme, chairman of the Forestry Commission, to delegates at a recent CLA London Branch meeting.
CLA Vice President Mark Tufnell (left) with Sir Harry Studholme (right) at the London Branch meeting, held at C. Hoare & Co. Bank on Fleet Street.
Forestry was not included in the Treaty of Rome, and therefore lies outside the competency of the EU, meaning foresters arguably face a lesser degree of uncertainty compared to farmers.
Speaking at the meeting, held at C. Hoare & Co. Bank on Fleet Street, Sir Harry told his audience: “We’re already working in a world market, so face less change, unlike red meat.
“Weak sterling is helpful for timber prices and growing conditions will remain the same.”
But a note of caution was also struck.
“That is not to say there will be no change. There is the longer term potential to strengthen borders but at the same time there is a risk of affecting relationships with our neighbours from whose countries many bugs and beasties may come.”
The labour situation is yet to fully play out, but again is likely to have a smaller scale impact on forestry than agriculture.
One of the biggest changes could emerge around incentives and talk of payment for “public goods”. This could lead to more money flowing into forestry, which “delivers carbon absorption, biodiversity and flood protection”.
How the UK stacks up
Despite being one of the least forested nations in Europe, especially compared to the likes of Sweden, Finland and Slovenia, Sir Harry highlighted that even a global city like London has more than 20% canopy cover.
“London is a forest by definition, there’s one tree per person,” he said. “Places like Highgate Cemetery are nearly as good at absorbing carbon as tropical rainforest.”
Sir Harry, who has owned and managed forests in South West England for more than 20 years and is also a chartered accountant and tax adviser, also stressed the historical importance of woodlands.
He said: “Forestry is older than agriculture and ploughing, it’s as old as time itself.”
While it has taken his family years of hard work to create and sustain a profitable estate, forestry has several elements in its favour.
“The profits don’t depend on subsidies, it’s not seriously weather dependent or time critical, it just keeps going, and best of all is tax-free.”
Sir Harry told delegates governments have consistently been keen on forestry, since at least the 16th century when a good supply of fuel and materials for waging war was needed.
The trend has always been to cut down trees, with the use of bronze making it 50 times quicker to chop wood than stone axes.
While the country went from more than 80% woodland cover in 6000BC to 14% in 1000AD, and halved again by 1947, levels have now returned to around 13%.
“We’re now back to where we were in probably the 12th century.”
Forestry in the future
With the Forestry Commission celebrating its centenary in 2019, what does the future hold for our forests?
Government enthusiasm for trees may have remained a constant, but the focus has shifted from fuel and military need to climate change and biodiversity.
Sir Harry recalled how in 1990 there “didn’t feel like much of a trend” in regards to climate and environmental changes.
“Now it seems to be getting hotter, carbon dioxide levels seems high, methane levels are going up, heat records are being broken worldwide.
“The mean temperature in the 2080s could be three or four degrees warmer, similar to mid-France today.
“That’s not an impossible climate, it’s not unattractive, but temperature isn’t the only issue, it’s the summer-winter difference and rainfall. Winter rainfall could be up 22% and summer down 22%, there could be storms, droughts, more pests and diseases moving around the world.
“Marginal changes can make a big difference.”
While Sir Harry listed climate change as a central threat, along with issues ranging from a lack of scale to wild boar numbers, especially in the Forest of Dean, he painted a strong and sustainable outlook for UK forestry, citing proximity to markets, high quality infrastructure and weak sterling among the sector’s many strengths and opportunities. Touching on Chinese growth and increasing urbanisation, he argued growth of the middle classes and ageing populations would have an impact on timber markets, with higher demand for incontinence products and pulp.
As well as floods and fires, new threats could emerge “munching their way across Europe”, from the likes of emerald ash borer, the pine processionary moth and Xylella fastidiosa. Stressed trees, such as those stricken by drought, could be particularly vulnerable.
“We’ll get better at fighting them, so it’s not 100 per cent gloomy, we just need to think about it.
“There’s lots we can do, we mustn’t despair.”
London branch – get involved
A varied line-up of speakers are set to talk at the CLA’s London Branch over the coming months.
14 November 2018 Anthony Kimber and Duncan Cadbury, Bournville Village Trust
23 January 2019 Richard Williamson, Beeswax Farming
For more information and to join London Branch please contact the South East office by calling 01264 313434 or emailing email@example.com
Sir Harry has owned and managed forests in South West England for more than two decades, based near Exeter in Devon. His areas of expertise are varied, according to his Forestry Commission profile, which lists him as a Cambridge engineering graduate, a chartered accountant, tax adviser and accredited commercial mediator.
He was chairman of the South West Regional Development Agency from 2009 to 2012. He chaired the Finding Sanctuary project, working with environmentalists and the fishing industry on proposals for marine conservation.