Wales needs trees – so why aren’t we planting any?

Martin Bishop calls for a renewed tree-planting push in Wales.

It might surprise you to learn that according to Woodlands for Wales Indicators 2015-16 the forestry and timber industry employs more than 10,000 people in Wales – and is worth more than £520 million annually to the economy.

As well as providing a supply of timber, trees are crucial to Wales’ climate change ambitions; they soak up carbon as they grow, and that carbon is stored away in wood products for many years. Modern forests also create habitats for biodiversity, areas for recreation, they reduce flood risk and clean the air we breathe.

And people love trees; 96 per cent said they provided at least one public benefit to Wales in the public opinion of forestry survey (2017); almost 8 in 10 said they were good for wildlife and 68 per cent said they were important for recreation.

Trees are clearly a well-loved and integral feature of the Welsh landscape – but the shocking statistic is that 18000 Hectares (40 million trees) have disappeared since 2001, despite their significance to the environment, economy and rural communities.

New planting rates have dropped to almost zero in recent years according to Forestry Commission Statistics 2017 – and many businesses are warning thousands of forestry jobs could be lost unless planting of softwoods (conifers) increases rapidly. As Wales Manager for the forestry and timber trade body Confor, I talk to these businesses all the time and they are worried.

Josh Sambrook-Jones of Clifford Jones Timber (near Ruthin in North Wales) says they would create more jobs immediately if it had more wood – and could double or treble production if they had enough trees to supply the demand.

That demand is for wooden products we all take for granted – fencing, decking and boards for flooring and kitchen units, as well as pallets for industry and timber frames for houses.

Jonathan Poynton of Pontrilas sawmills, which operate on the Wales/England border, is another man with a simple message: planting trees now is planting jobs for the future. “As long as we have trees to harvest and process, we will employ people,” he told me. “More trees equals more jobs.” 

But Wales simply isn’t planting the trees these important rural employers need.

The Climate Change Strategy for Wales contains an aspiration to create 100,000 hectares (ha) of new woodland between 2010 and 2030 as a means to help Wales meet its carbon emission reduction targets. The recommendation from the Land Use Climate Change Group (2010) was accepted by the Welsh Government as a climate change target to achieve levels of reduction in Wales greenhouse gas emissions by long-term carbon sequestration. The aspiration required planting 5,000ha of additional woodland cover per year from 2010 to 2030. This means we should have planted 35000ha by now, the reality is we have managed just 3700ha, which is only 11% of target.

Since then, driven by the lack of achievement, Welsh Government has created a new Woodlands for Wales Action Plan which sets a new short-term target of creating 2000ha of new woodland/forests per annum by 2020. The UK Committee on Climate Change (UKCCC) in its recent report to Welsh Government, suggests a much higher target of 4000ha every year to meet Wales’ environmental obligations.

When Lord Deben, Chair of the UK Climate Change Committee highlighted the 4000ha annual target, he said he was disappointed Wales “had not embraced forestry as it should have in recent years”. He continued: “Wales needs a national determination to plant more trees.”Yet, as Woodlands for Wales Indicators 2015-16 points out, a pitiful 39ha of new productive forest were planted in 2016.

Throw in other factors like a failure to restock felled forests immediately, highlighted in The Changes in Canopy Cover in British Woodlands report, the 18000ha of lost conifer forest previously mentioned, and removing trees for wind farms such as the Pen y Cymoedd wind farm development (Net loss of 250Ha of productive forest, not including the 18000ha reported in Woodlands for Wales indicators), all means the productive capacity of Welsh forests is declining dramatically over the next 15–20 years.

The long-term 50 Year Forecast of Softwood Availability for Wales shows a catastrophic decline in timber production in the near future. This will reduce investment by wood processing companies and threatens jobs.

The lack of planting (and determination) has contributed to a wider UK problem and created another shocking statistic; the UK is the second largest global net importer of wood products by value, overtaking Japan and behind only China in the latest statistics.

Wales has to play its part in tackling this dreadful state of affairs. New planting is set to increase slightly, with around 1,000ha planned for 2018 but this is still way below what is needed.

Also, the majority of new planting has not been the productive softwood species (like spruce, pine and Douglas fir) to supply the timber needed to secure jobs and provide the wood products we all take for granted.

Last summer, things started to look up. Pressure from Confor led to the publication of the Branching Out report by the Welsh Assembly Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs committee, calling for a sharp increase in planting, especially productive conifer species.

Confor has called for the urgent implementation of the Branching Out report and for the first time in nearly a generation, the Welsh Government has acknowledged there is a problem.

Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn told the Welsh Assembly that improving and expanding the woodland of Wales is one of her top priorities. The noises coming from the Minister and from the Welsh Government, are very positive – but there is no time to lose. An old forester once told me the best time to plant trees was 20 years ago – and the next best time is now. This is very true.

We need a swift, decisive commitment by the Welsh Government to make tree planting happen, to give wood processing companies the confidence that there will be continued supplies of timber from Welsh forests in the future. Regular planting will secure jobs and enhance future investment and the Government must seize the opportunity.

Lesley Griffiths, the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, has put climate change at the heart of her work and I welcome that – because forestry can also be a real game-changer for climate change as demonstrated by the Combating climate change – a role for UK forests report. As well as soaking up, and storing, atmospheric carbon, planting trees will help Wales become more globally responsible by reducing imports of timber and timber products.

We should be targeting self-sufficiency in timber production in the long-term.

Wales must take the advice of that old forester and start planting those trees now – to protect its economy and environment and deliver a bright future for its rural communities.

Our film Animating Forestry demonstrates the link between forestry and wood products.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Martin Bishop is the Wales Manager of Confor.

14 thoughts on “Wales needs trees – so why aren’t we planting any?

  1. A very good point very well made. The statistics are shocking. We should also be doing all we can to take the pressure off rainforests, where unplanned logging is destroying the habitats of endangered species to serve consumer demand in countries like ours. Besides, as the article says, everyone likes trees, and it would be good for both tourism and public morale if Wales returned to being the heavily forested land it was before the Industrial Revolution.

  2. More trees in Wales will do all kinds of good, for wildlife, flooding, climate, and creating places to walk and cycle. And most importantly, trees are the ‘green gold’ which will replace all the non-renewable, polluting and carbon intensive materials in our society, from disposable plastics to construction concrete to fossil fuels. Wales has the perfect soil and climate to be a powerhouse of this green industrial revolution and enjoy the jobs and goods that grow on trees – but only if it starts planting sustainable forests now.

  3. Come on Welsh Government – make it happen! We talk about the wellbeing of future generations and there is nothing more fundamental to a persons wellbeing than having a decent job and productive woodland from planting to sawmilling can provide those all important rural jobs but we need to plant more trees and do it now before it is too late!

  4. There are many reasons not to plant trees commercially in Wales – associating them with the fake science of global warming rather than looking at them as a primary industry of timber production is definitely one of them. Try Hungary.

  5. The article should be more concise about the balance of replanting and planting the right trees in the right place. Blanket conifer plantations are a monoculture and do not provide variety or a mosaic of habitat. Alongside monoculture sheep farming, Agri run off, the acidification of water courses, have hugely contributed to the State of Nature report. A massive slump in biodiversity over 50 yrs.

    Yes we need trees, but this has to also support biodiversity, and sustainable farming practices, or woodland management and its valued products. What is Eco tourism worth to Wales enhanced? The mid Wales rivers are next to dead. Yes grow your own soft wood, conifer, but plant in sympathy, sensitivity to biodiversity, but essentially observe that broad buffering needs to be implemented. That Ancient woods, species rich woods need to be protected, they are irreplaceable. We are not just re planting for a conifer timber 20 year gain, we need to plant broadleaf for many future generations, to restore an equal if not greater factor, our nature.

    NB. I’m not saying do not plant conifer, I am saying plant a balance. Ensure those materials benefit the local economy, ensure what is constructed especially housing is part of that drive for reduce on energy demands, energy being Wales biggest emitter. We all need a massive re connect to the ‘worth’ of our environment restored, and this is not just about a monetary value. It is about a lost connection, that has got us to this place, where disasterous climate change has yet to be addressed. No more ‘business as usual’ #WFGAct

  6. N. Pugh Your critique is tired & lazy. Let’s see some more constructive input from the WT.
    Martin, the 250ha taken by PYC is a figure offered for what might be a wind farm with a 15 year lifespan after that it can be restocked. Windfarms aren’t the issue. Perhaps we should be clearer about where the deforestation is taking place and why

  7. there is little current incentive for a lowland land manager to plant trees in wales, particularly not broadleaves. the rules are burdensome, the financial loss is significant, and the damage by grey squirrels and deer is seemingly uncontrolable. none of this needs be the case. but despite wag’s wellbeing, happiness, sustainability etc legislative enthusiasm, there seems to be a mismatch between aspiration and reality. i suspect foresters may have said all this before.

  8. More trees have to be a good thing for the climate, for flood prevention, for timber as a renewable resource and importantly for carbon sequestration. This meassage applies to all the countires in the UK, get on with it and get more trees planted.

  9. More trees, of a commercial value, need to be planted. Encouragement via grants should be given to small woodland owners, say of less than 30 hectares, who can plant small pockets but who incur disproportionate costs owing to smaller planting areas.

    We also need to be aware of the potential for future diseases, so commercial trees apart from Sitka, Douglas Fir need to be identified so we have resilience.

    New tree plantings need to consider short rotations to ensure the sawmills etc can be kept operational whilst waiting for mature trees to become available. Perhaps the sawmills can provide a list of recommended trees they would prefer.

  10. Planting more trees, of all types, is a good thing to do for so many reasons. Yes, it’s important in tackling man-made climate change, but there are many others too- listed in the article and the comments. One thing that frustrates me is that there’s an assumption a forest planted (primarily) to produce wood will be a monoculture and have little benefit for wildlife or recreation. Speaking bluntly, that’s absolute tosh! Modern productive forestry is one of the most sustainable land uses and the evidence of wider benefits is striking. If we are to be serious about meeting our global commitments and securing productive rural areas with high environmental benefit, then it’s incumbent upon critics to look at the evidence on the ground of what modern forestry delivers.

  11. “As Wales Manager for the forestry and timber trade body Confor, I talk to these businesses all the time and they are worried.”

    And it is this concern which generates an article such as this. Mitigating climate change, biodiverity, amenity value, a sustainable UK source timber, securing jobs are boxes to be ticked in order to get support for certain types of businesses whose interests are represented and promoted by Confor.
    Those boxes are important and need to be ticked however it’s far from a given that the solution lies with the forestry/timber industries is they are now. To me it looks like what Confor advocates comes up second best on every count.

    If we want to maximize woodlands soaking up CO2 then we need them to be grown on rotations that are much shorter than those on which conifer plantations are managed.
    If we want to significantly increase and sustain biodiversity then we need broadleaf woodlands not coniferous ones with a few broadleaves.
    If we want to improve amenity value we need broadleaf woodlands where visitors can walk through or look through large parts of the wood rather than coniferous ones where visitors only really get a satisfying and quality experience in the small areas that haven’t been planted with conifers.
    If we want a sustainable Welsh softwood timber supply then we need to realize that this supply will be of a lower quality and therefore less useful compared to timber from eg Scandinavia. This is due to our warmer climate. Also due to the climate warming we can expect that, when harvested, trees planted now will be of a lower quality than those currently being harvested.
    If we want jobs then exporting (from Cymru) a relatively lesser quality unprocessed or party processed commodity isn’t the way forward. Planting trees that offer opportunities for value to be added to their higher quality timber by businesses in Cymru is going to provide more and more diverse businesses and jobs.

    To me short rotation broadleaf woodlands are a much better box ticker than long rotation coniferous ones apart from the wellbeing of current members of the foresty/timber industry box .

  12. If the Welsh government spent money on bribing people to plant trees there would be 12 comments blaming them for not spending it on people in the NHS. Surely it is up to landowners to plant trees.

  13. Tredwyn your point would be fair were it not for the fact that the Welsh Government via European agriculture grants effectively pay farmers to not plant trees. Subsidence given to area of “farmed” land and to the maintenance of otherwise very uneconomic sheep production penalize any land owner that decides to grow woodland.

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