Requiring a hefty 240,000 tonnes of wood raw material per annum, the new biomass power station being constructed just outside Sandwich, Kent is set to be the catalyst to kick start the South East’s dwindling interest in woodland management.

Wanting to hear more about the opportunities this project will create, over 150 farmers, landowners, foresters and advisors gathered at Bore Place, Edenbridge on 15 November 2017 for a wood fuel collaboration conference, delivered by Kent County Council and timber harvesting and marketing company, Euroforest.

“The project is currently on schedule and nearing completion,” Ben Manterfield from Euroforest told delegates. “Both the wood chipper and boiler have been installed, the storage pits are almost finished and the boiler will be ready for hot commissioning in February 2018.”

Having secured the long-term contract to supply the £160 million combined heat and power (CHP) plant development, which aims to produce electricity for 50,000 homes in the area as well as heating Sandwich’s Discovery Park, Euroforest has already begun actively purchasing wood with the first deliveries expected to commence in December 2017.

The anticipated annual required volume of 160,000 tonnes of hardwood roundwood, 25,000 tonnes of softwood roundwood, 20,000 tonnes of saw mill chips and 36,500 tonnes of A-grade recycled timber is expected to come from several hundred suppliers across the South East alone.
“We want to keep the supply chain as robust as possible and whether you will be sending 20 loads a week, one load every six months, or half a load per year, we are interested in talking to anyone who wants to be involved and can supply the project,” said Ben Manterfield

Enough wood on paper

According to the Forestry Commission there are approximately 49,000 hectares of woodland in Kent, 42,000ha in Surrey and 34,000ha in East Sussex, not including small woodland areas which cover around one third as much area again.

“Based on a conservative estimate of broadleaves growing at 4 tonnes per hectare per year, and bearing in mind chestnut can do twice or three times that amount, even if we only harvested two thirds of what is growing, from Kent alone we could get more than 100,000 tonnes per year,” said Matthew Woodcock from the Forestry Commission.

Although there is more than enough wood out there, these figures do not highlight the challenges there are in accessing that wood and with only around 20% of this woodland under management plans there is a lot of preparation which needs to take place before felling and processing starts.

“On paper, all the material is available in the South East of England and the last thing we want to do is to have to import material,” said Ben. “In order to avoid that and to allow the industry to develop we will need everyone, including suppliers, contractors and hauliers, to play a part in helping to bring that material to market.”

Making it worthwhile

While the new biomass market may be begging for long-term suppliers, with roadside roundwood rates set at £26 per tonne for hardwood and £24 per tonne for softwood, even with a premium paid for drier wood, woodland owners will still need to look to other markets to make felling economically worthwhile.

“The big drive with this project is to bring undermanaged woodlands back into management,” said Ben. “We are only offering a market for the low-quality material but while harvesting this you should also be producing material which can generate higher revenue through the traditional markets.”
Alongside the region’s strong chestnut fencing market, there are flood defence opportunities with the provision of timber for the construction of groins, the need for more housing continues to drive the local construction market, firewood for domestic purposes and general saw log sales continue to be lucrative markets, and with a rising increase in glamping, tourism is now also providing another stream of revenue from woodland management.

Earlier in November South East Farmer visited Guy Nevill at the Birling Estate and his case study a few pages later in this month’s woodland feature will provide readers with some additional insight into how farmers can add value to their woodland with tourism and timber opportunities.

Spreading the benefits

Whether it is woodland owners, contractors or advisors, hauliers, or other end users, the benefits of the project are hoped to be spread as widely across the South East as possible.

Since the project started, Euroforest has been working closely with local haulage firms and encouraging them to “kit up”, with the impact of doing so also predicted to benefit the forestry industry as a whole, as timber can be moved fluidly around the country.

“There have been three crane lorries come on to the road since the contract was started and we are also talking to a major haulier in the region to look at the possibility of kitting out 350 flat beds,” said Ben.

Combined with providing these multi-sectoral economic benefits, Matthew Woodcock highlighted the other importance of bringing the woodlands back into active management.

“So many of our woods haven’t been managed for a long time because we haven’t had the markets, but now what we would like to see is a lot more actively managed woods because they are more resilient, they deliver the biodiversity and they deliver business markets,” he said.

As well as improving biodiversity and wildlife habitats, as forestry management has fallen out of practice over the years the region has begun to experience problems with diseases such as Chalara ash dieback and unmanaged woods can also increase the risk of damage during storms and flooding.

Support packages available

The markets may now be in place and the wood is theoretically available, but there are still a number of challenges to overcome in terms of accessing that wood and the additional licences, plans, infrastructure, machinery and labour costs involved.

Currently, there are a number of support packages available to help woodland owners take advantage of these opportunities. From Forestry Commission grant aid to cover the costs of putting a woodland management plan in place, to countryside stewardship funding for improvements to access such as roads and crossings, speakers at the conference pointed out that there is good money available at the moment.

“The grants for planting trees are even better,” said Matthew. “We have a lot of woodland in the South East and we also have a lot of poor quality farmland. If land is prone to flooding each year and is not really making any money you could actually get funding to plant a new woodland which stacks up economically and with the right species could be harvested within 10 years.”

However, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, those looking to take advantage of funding schemes such as LEADER are encouraged to apply as soon as possible and, as it is unclear what will be available from March 2019, it is a very much use it or lose it situation.

Abhorrently absent from the long list of funding and grant programmes on offer was the provision of training schemes. If there is going to be a resurgence in active management of woodland, investment into infrastructure and new plantings, there needs to be a readily available source of skilled labourers.

While there were suggestions that colleges prefer to focus on tree surgery because it is a quicker educational programme to roll out and applicants are lured in by potentially good wages, questions were raised at the conference about what was being done to secure the future labour force.

The Forestry Commission stated that it is working with various education providers, such as Plumpton College, to try and get them to adopt a new training standard, but foresters and employers also need to do their bit to make sure there are the job and career opportunities for the next generation of foresters coming through this education.

Big steps forward

For woodland owners looking to take advantage of this new base market for low quality materials, embarking on an active management approach will need careful preparation, for as well as legally requiring a felling licence, a woodland management plan will also need to be put in place to prove the sustainability of the product.

At the conference arable farmer Andrew Murison, from Broxham Farm Partnership, raised the profitability issues of smaller woodland owners and suggested that more should be being done to join up these owners and help them set up the supply chain to get wood out to market.

“Unless there is a collaboration it isn’t going to happen because it isn’t going to be profitable for anyone to do it,” said Andrew. “I have 64 acres with 10 acres of good standing chestnut ready to go but risk losing money hand over fist with the labour costs to get it out and the logistics to transport it.”

Both ends of the supply chain need to be able to see each other and the steps in between as achievable. While the biomass plant is will help lower the costs to get the higher quality wood to market, there needs to be a system which helps farmers and landowners with smaller parcels of woodland invest in the woodland management plans, put the right infrastructure in place, and cover the labour and the transportation.

It should be noted that grants, as plentiful as they are, will only reimburse a certain percentage of the project and farmers and landowners will be expected to find the full sun of money up front.

Regardless of the acreage, a service for all farmers and landowners seeking advice on where to start with their woodland has been established. Ultimately aiming to get more woodlands into management, a group called the Woodland Advisors has been formed to encourage owners to see and find the potential of their woodlands, to improve productivity and natural capital of woodlands, increase enjoyment and engagement in woodlands and improve and increase potential for wildlife and conservation values.

“It is about sitting down with woodland owners to find out what would work for them,” said Matthew Woodcock. “The Forestry Commission has a small team of advisors but the real big step forwards is the Woodland Advisors group. They have set basic standards to adhere to and are all offering to provide that first site visit for free.”

Initial advice will be provided to give clarity to woodland owners on what the next step might be. For farmers or landowners with unmanaged woods, there is no harm in looking into it and embarking on the first steps of the journey, even you decided it is not right for you after having gained the initial advice.

The majority of farmers and landowners probably haven’t looked at the woodland as functioning part of the business in a number of generations. The industry needs prospects which stack up as business templates and instead of looking solely at the biomass prices from Euroforest, it is about looking at the farm business as a whole and how trees and woodlands can fit in to an overall diversification model.

Read our full woodland feature