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This article featured in the October edition of the Timber Trades Journal

It is now well known that the rate of UK timber imports is not sustainable.   In the context of the climate emergency, other countries’ timber needs and the need for increased stocks, the UK should aim towards reducing reliance on others.

While this is a challenge, it does represent an opportunity for the UK’s timber producers and processors to benefit from an increase in commercial forestry production and is a constant reminder of the need for the country as a whole, to be more self-reliant.

Currently, home-grown grown timber makes up around 33 per cent of the UK market for construction timber. The UK overall, imports around 80 per cent of the timber it uses each year and we remain second only to China in the amount we import.

Set within the environmental debate, commercial forestry also makes sense.  With a diverse range of planting, modern commercial forestry can comfortably span the need for carbon sequestration, biodiversity and increasing our supply of usable timber.  However, what we really need to push our industry further is innovation to keep industry ahead of the curve.

While we are largely self-sufficient in fencing and produce good quantities of packaging and pallets, the real growth opportunity is in construction grades, especially to ensure our housing industry can respond to net zero targets and build better housing faster. As an industry created to avert a potential crisis in timber shortage during wartime, public forestry now faces a climate crisis that requires significant forward planning for the future.  And with good innovation, public forestry could tick quite a few of the boxes.

Views of our industry still remain outdated and are fuelled by assumptions based on 40 year old practices when large, closely packed monoculture planting was the norm.   With the domestic demand for more C16 grade, kiln dried carcassing timber for structural applications, modern planting needs to respond to that requirement as well as to that of biodiversity and climate mitigation.  Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) is always identifying ways to improve our timber resource and how we can work in partnership with stakeholders to deliver much needed supplies for industry, while maintaining our forests and the wildlife within them.

Over recent months FLS, within our ongoing planting and felling programme, has been trialling technological innovations that will help further increase the quality of the timber we produce.  In Dumfries and Galloway, for a start, we have been trialling GPS as a way to improve ground preparation.  This means we can deliver more consistent mounding spacing to ensure more uniform timber quality, helping to reduce uneven branching and problematic compression and tension characteristics.

While the agriculture industry has been using GPS widely for some time with incredible results, this is a new step for forestry which, as we know, involves more complex ground conditions, roughness and slope issues.   In this instance a Risutec Asta system comprising a GPS sensor linking to a cab-based interface has been installed on a Molplant excavator.  The system enables the operator to map cultivation locations, and potentially in the future drains and tracks, with the tablet displaying the area of work completed and the mounding density and spacing.  We believe this will enable us to achieve more consistency when establishing a conifer woodland and ensure trees have enough space for optimal growth alongside consistency – potentially the holy grail for the UK forestry industry, as constructors seek more reliable and consistent products.

Another focus for us this year has been in sourcing highly qualified and skilled recruits.  In particular we have focused on securing greater numbers of qualified civil engineers.  A programme of outreach to students and schools has highlighted the opportunities available in forestry, a career not necessarily considered by most civil engineering graduates.

FLS offers 12 month civil engineering placements and employs apprentices and graduates to work across forest management, mechanical engineering, data science and trees and timber.   It’s through employing some of our finest graduates and apprentices that we will also see an increase in the quality of our core outputs.

These steps ensure we will continue to improve our ability to plant the forests of the future which play their part in timber production, while also employing a workforce, being exemplars for innovation and providing much-needed leisure space for a population of now over 67 million people.

Further innovation has been undertaken in trials being run in partnership with precision indoor growing technology specialist, Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS).  Through the use of an indoor vertical farm, tree seedlings are being grown six times faster than compared to traditional outdoor sowing.  In the first UK trials of their kind, we have enabled tree seedlings to grow to 40-50cm tall in just 90 days – something that in a field would take up to 18 months – these trials could potentially transform the forestry sector, while helping the UK to meet its net zero targets faster.

FLS has already completed five growing trials at the IGS Crop Research Centre, based at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, just outside Dundee.  Species that have successfully been grown at the facility include both conifers, like Norway and Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Lodge pole and Scots pine, and broadleaf varieties, including Oak, Alder, Aspen, Rowan, Hazel and Birch.  Each trial has yielded better results than the last, with tweaks being made each time to the environment, including watering regimes, light settings and nutrition.

Tree seed germination rates are significantly more efficient (around 95% with a 10-14 day germination period) compared to traditional outdoor broadcast sowing and with wastage also minimised, the process uses half the number of seeds currently required.  Once grown, we hardened off the seeds at our Newton Nursery near Elgin for planting on.  These trials, as with the GPS tracking, offer real opportunity to produce a more consistent product.  Because the farm controls all the conditions that matter to a plant such as temperature, light, water, wind and humidity we can create the optimum conditions for growth.

A further environmental benefit from this innovation is that far less water is required to grow trees this way, as vertical farms operate with much higher humidity and lose far less water through transpiration compared to trees grown in polytunnels and glasshouses that need much more watering. We have been pleased with the ‘proof of concept’ and the potential of the system to be integrated into FLS’s normal processes.

As climate change throws new challenges at our forests including rising temperatures, prolonged drought, increased pests and wildfires, along with the need to grow more timber and faster, innovation has to be the way to plant our forests of the future.   With a combination of more consistent planting, changing the species in response to changes in climate and always seeking out innovation, the way forward for FLS is to produce UK stocks of timber that will meet demand and determine the future of our industry better.


Notes to editors

  1. Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) manages forests and land owned by Scottish Ministers in a way that supports and enables economically sustainable forestry; conserves and enhances the environment; delivers benefits for people and nature; and supports Scottish Ministers in their stewardship of Scotland's national forests and land.

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  3. Media enquiries to Paul Munro, Media Manager, Forestry and Land Scotland Media Office 07785 527590 or