Sourcing sustainable wood in the UK

When you are about to start on your next DIY project using wood, do you usually check for any sign that certifies the wood is grown sustainably?
If you burn wood as fuel, can you confidently trace its origin?
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC) logos are internationally recognised, not-for-profit organisations which promote responsible management of forests all over the world. So if you spot either the FSC or PEFC logos on any wood you buy, this is a sure sign that the product has a good track record in looking after the forest from which it originates.
Here in the UK, another logo can often be found; “Grown in Britain” and the Nordic swan logo from Scandinavia advertises wood grown closer to home than the Brazilian rainforest.
This article will explain the many certifications of wood available to buy in the UK and how you can check its environmental credentials.

Did you know?
* The UK is the second biggest importer of wood worldwide, with China being the first. This is not a figure to be proud of.
* 80% of the wood in the UK is from imported sources. Considering the size of both China
and the UK, this figure is truly staggering.
* Woodland cover in the UK is quoted at 13% while in most of Europe coverage is about 33%. See more about this below.

What does “sustainable” mean in terms of forestry management?
The common standards across this industry worldwide are the standards set internationally ie the FSC and PEFC and in the UK, there is also the Forestry Commission, various government departments, and other organisations. The buzzword of sustainable is very popular in environmental discussions. Confused? I was too, so let’s look at the main regulatory bodies for the provenance of wood supplies. These labels tell you this wood was grown to acceptable standards and did not damage natural forests.

FSC: The Forest Stewardship Council is a benchmark worldwide to encourage good forest management and working closely with nature, hoping to counteract the destruction of trees illegally and limited chemicals in use in forests.

The PEFC Council (the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes) is a worldwide organisation promoting sustainable forest management through forest certification and labelling of forest-based products. Products with PEFC accreditation deliver confidence that raw material originates in a sustainably managed forest.

Grown in Britain is a not-for-profit company, established in Bristol in 2013.

The Forestry Commission is a non-ministerial government department responsible for the management of publicly owned forests and the regulation of both public and private forestry in England. It was formerly also responsible for Forestry in Wales and Scotland, however on 1 April 2013, Forestry Commission Wales merged with other agencies to become Natural Resources Wales, whilst two new bodies were established in Scotland on 1 April 2019.

What do we use wood for in the UK?
Outdoors. It’s a natural product and we love it for fencing, sheds, decking, raised beds,
furniture, shelves, arbours, and playhouses.
Indoors we use it for wardrobes, chests, cupboards for kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms,
skirting boards, shelves, etc.
In construction, wood is used to construct frames and beams although steel and metal
frames are becoming more common. It is also used as cladding on buildings; however,
Grenfell has made us all-wise, in retrospect and cladding is now carefully checked for its
resistance to fire.
Protection. Pallets are used to protect other delicate products and unless they are re-sold,
re-used, or upcycled a lot of wood is going to waste.
Fuel. Wood is used for burners, open fires, and pellets are sold, which are wood-based.
Biofuel and pellets are made from wood for industrial use.
– Wood is present in many products, such as plywood, MDF and imported paper products
like plasterboard, newspaper, and cardboard.

A qualified forester’s viewpoint
I spoke to Dave Preskett, a qualified forester from Bangor. He surprised me by informing me that the UK is the second-largest importer of timber (after China) and he adds “80% of that timber is imported.” Europe has about 30% forestry cover and the UK is claimed to have 13%. Dave sees that figure as misleading because “woodland cover” since the 1990s now includes all forest areas.
Satellite technology picks up the green of any tree canopy so think of the trees growing in your back garden, in public parks, golf courses, neglected woodlands, and roadside plantings in addition to what we all consider to be true forests.
“In the UK, no more than 5-7% is true forest cover” according to Dave. This was a historical development of the Industrial Revolution, in which timber was used in manufacturing and for fuel, leaving large areas of the countryside deforested, which then moved to grass pasture for sheep and grouse. He tells me 60% of the coniferous forests in the UK are Sitka spruce, which is a non-native tree sourced from a North West Pacific island (Queen Charlotte’s Island).
The Forestry Commission statistics only differentiate felled timber volumes as hardwood or softwood. Hardwood is a small part of the market. Softwood trees are dominated by Sitka spruce.”
Dave comments that the quality of the wood from Sitka spruce is very knotty compared to Norway spruce. However, they can be densely planted – about 2,750 trees per 1m x 1m spacing per hectare is the norm for Sitka spruce and they have a 50-year life, locking in carbon as they grow. Native UK trees like oak and chestnut need a lot more space to mature. In order to lock up carbon
in trees, we need to retain the timber furniture we make for generations, and also Dave advises “We need a massive tree-planting programme to lock up carbon.”
A final discussion was had about the transport of wood and how a tree grown in the UK has no extra carbon miles added to it, which takes me nicely onto Grown in Britain.

Forest management, according to Grown in Britain
Rachel Lawrence from Grown in Britain (GiB) emphasizes that her organisation is very keen to move more forest into management, because that way “only locally grown, sustainable timber will be stamped with the Grown in Britain logo.” Effectively, good management is rewarded by certification because it conserves woodland wildlife and fauna and chops wood in a managed,
controlled way. Grown in Britain is a not-for-profit company, which works closely with London Metropolitan University on the “Home Grown House” project.
Using domestically grown timber and round-wood thinnings, the project is investigating how local, coppiced wood can be used in low-cost, house construction, and the locally grown Sweet Chestnut timber is being tested for its durability and mechanical properties. Coppicing is a traditional method of chopping some young wood stems periodically while allowing the forest to continue growing.

Biosecurity and pests
Rachel explained GiB is also extremely concerned with biosecurity for trees in the UK, as pests are easily introduced. GiB is a partner of the Plant Healthy Certification Scheme and she encourages nurseries, garden centres, plant retailers, and public bodies to check for this mark on any products they sell on their premises. “Pests are so easily introduced. Plant Healthy aims to
make the movement of all plant material more biosecure”. 14 well-known UK companies have joined the scheme including Barcham Trees, English Woodlands, Wyevale nursery, and many more you can see here

Plant healthy certified businesses

GiB is working in close co-operation with the Morgan Sindall group in planting new woods in
Oxfordshire, which will incorporate 28 carefully selected varieties of trees. These include
Hornbeam, Lime, Sycamore, Wild Cherry, Oak, Norway Maple, Alder, and Beech in the mixed
woodlands with an understorey of woody shrub species including Hazel, Hawthorn, Viburnums,
Euonymus, and Dogwoods to create a diverse and self-sustaining eco-system. Experimental
species will also be included to assess climate resilience and a small percentage of conifer
planted to provide winter habitats for wildlife.

How can I make sure the wood I use is from a sustainable source?

1. Trace the timber – Where does it come from?
Tracing the timber you buy to a forest with a fully implemented forest management plan in line
with the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS) requirements and guidelines, is essential.
– The FSC or PEFT logo assures you that the wood is from a well-managed forest.
– The Grown in Britain logo is recommended for wood that is UK sourced.
– The Forestry Commission offers some guidance if you are a small woodland owner trying
to get documentation for your wood.
Newer forests, which do not have any certification, can apply to the UK Woodland
Assurance Standard (UKWAS)
. Passing this standard helps them to label your wood as
having sustainable credibility. If a woodland is assessed by either FSC or PEFC against the
UKWAS, timber can be sold as FSC and /or PEFC certified.

2. Timber Standard for Heat and Electricity (TSHE)
Wood biomass. This is a standard to show how the land criteria will apply to any supplier who
generates heat and electricity from woody biomass under the Renewable Heat Incentive,
Renewables Obligation, and Contracts for Difference. So make sure to ask your wood supplier
how they manage their forest and get them to tell you about their storage. Wood for your burner
needs to have matured for at least 2 years so that the moisture content is reduced. Your supplier
can tell you a lot about how they manage their woodland. If your supplier does not have a
certification but you are sure it is well managed, advise them to contact the Forestry Commission,
or UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS). See number 2 above.

3. Local councils and businesses.
Councils are advised by government policy and these days everybody wants to show their green
credentials. Councils should have policies for the wood they use for seats and benches and also
for the management of their green spaces. Check the policies out and if you have any doubts, get
in touch with them. Most councils try very hard to recycle anything possible and the main message
with wood is don’t buy new, try to re-use if you can.
What treatments are used on wood and how sustainable are they?
– Thermal is fantastic for the length of time it preserves the wood but can contain harmful
compounds for growing food.
– Staining – very attractive colours are available and they do extend the life of the wood.
– Varnish – some are very dangerous for aquatic environments. Check very carefully before
usage. Some natural resins are available from pine trees and could be used as alternatives
although they are difficult to source and more expensive.
– Paint. Try to use paints with low VOCs (Volatile organic compounds) because these mean
less damage to the environment.
– Oils – teak oil is fantastic for wood maintenance and anything that sustains the wood in
good condition for longer is good. However, they need to be re-applied annually so make
sure you use an oil that is sourced from as locally as possible.

Some good news stories about timber and forests
1. In Finland, there are experiments converting Norway spruce to cotton. Cotton is a very water hungry crop and uses a lot of pesticides. By substituting a locally grown tree, this is good news for the textile industry and well managed forests.
2. Pesticide use can be restricted by growing pest-resistant trees.
3. Partnerships like Grown in Britain with universities and private landowners to plant forests are happening all over Britain. Join in. Find one locally or see the next suggestion.
4. Small local woodland areas can gain accreditation (using the information above) and funding to manage them but you need committed people with time in the team.
5. Local councils. Timber procurement policy, like a council specifying locally grown hardwoods to make our benches in parks. Mail your council and ask them their policy and encourage them to join the Plant Healthy movement for nursery plants which will be planted in parks and public gardens.