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Challenge conventional thinking to make woodlands pay
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The forestry sector must be prepared challenge conventional thinking if it is to make woodlands pay, a major conference heard.

Forestry Commission Chairman, woodland owner and investment adviser Sir Harry Studholme and Keith Blacker of Edistone, Llanfyllin, said the industry had to be much more focused on what the customer wanted.

A full report from the conference will appear in the January issue of the QJF. Speakers' presentation slides can be accessed here 

Describing how he had brought experience from the automotive and telecoms industries to his small woodland business, Keith Blacker said: “The forestry sector tends to look at planting a tree first and thinking about what the customer wants last. What it should be doing is asking what the customer wants first and then planting a tree.” 

The conference, Making Woodlands Pay, organised by the Royal Forestry Society and Confor, also heard calls for a stronger focus on diversity and quality to deliver economically successful woodlands – and an open-minded, flexible approach to how to derive income from forests.

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 Sir Harry Studholme, top, and, Keith Blacker discuss Making Woodlands Pay 

Sir Harry said the UK forestry sector had to be aware of the impact of global trends, especially the fact that China – already by far the world’s largest timber importer – would require more imports in future when logging in its national forests ends in 2017

He added it was “a real challenge” to ensure continued productive planting and warned of a hardwood glut, with the 500,000 tonnes likely to rise to 3 million tonnes due to planting policies.

Speakers also discussed the potential impact of Brexit. Oliver Combe, of Timber Auctions, said a sluggish market in late 2015 had transformed within a year, with sawmills busy and looking for timber and investing in increased capacity, he added. Prices for good-quality timber were strong with the post-Brexit impact of rising import prices [the UK still imports 60 per cent of its timber] likely to be  felt in early 2017 once current supplies run down. 

Justin Mumford of Lockhart Garrett said firewood had been a “fundamental game-changer for lowland forestry”, but warned against complacency as half of UK internet firewood buyers were supplied with wood from abroad. He thought woodland owners were becoming more savvy about marketing and said “a good quality brand and delivery to the end user allows you to gain a premium price”.

Jenny Wong, an expert on non-timber forest products (NTFP), described the vast range options to develop an income from forests that did not involve wood and Ruth Pybus of Bron Haul, near Abergele, described how her interest in hazel basket weaving developed into a small business, along with other emerging projects including sweet chestnut posts.

Woodland owners  were also urged to be open-minded about tree breeding and consider that modern techniques could have a big part to play.Jason Sinden of Tilhill Forestry said breeding strategies were already moving from selection to editing and now building from scratch (synthetic organisms have been around since 2010. 

Steve Lee of Forest Research described the cost and complexity of “the long, slow process of tree breeding." He said good trees were a product of both their environment and genetics and it was time-consuming, expensive and challenging to separate out the genetic element.

Gary Kerr, Principal Silviculturalist with Forest Research, said “reducing risk through diversity” was a high priority for forest resilience. He also urged woodland owners to look at different approaches to the “great tree” sitka spruce.