The South West is the best place for growing trees in England due to the mild climate and rainfall. Whereas the South West's cover may be high when compared to England, it is lower than most of Europe's, with the EU average being 33%. Because of this relatively small woodland cover the UK is unlikely to exceed 25% self-sufficiency of its rising demand for timber/timber products, indicating that a market will always be available.
The region is in an excellent position to benefit from its growing conditions and produce sustainable employment. Full utilisation of the tree and its products, adding value to the timber yield, and the use of recycled timber waste will all increase the industry's efficiency, competitiveness and potential. This applies as much to farm woodland and co-operatives, as to the commercial estate owner. Renewable energy has great potential using wood and is beginning to develop. The prosperity of the region varies as well as the land type from the fragile rural and pastoral areas of the far south west to the more affluent north east. This is reflected in woodland management, i.e. they are better managed in the prosperous areas.
National and Regional Forestry Strategies launched by the government aim to:
A successful example of this is the South West Forest project, started in 1997 and partly funded by Objective 5b, which includes the areas of poor soils of north Cornwall. This has resulted in over 1000ha. contracted to be planted under the Forestry Commission's Woodland Grant Scheme. The project is committed to encouraging community woodlands with 47ha. created so far. An associated training package run with Lantra has delivered over 300 trainee days to date with all ages involved. This is essential to ensure knowledge and commitment for the farmer - foresters involved with the new woodlands.
Having a higher proportion of Grades 3 and 4 agricultural land, the South West has considerable opportunity for the creation of new woodlands. New woodland can be especially beneficial to the environment when native species are planted as extensions of ancient woodland or used to join remaining fragments.
It is essential to ensure that existing woodlands are managed, and managed for their appropriate objectives. This can revolve around education and training for both owners and labour and efficient marketing, be it independently or through co-operatives. It may also depend on the creation and development of the market itself and support for forestry/rural businesses. Projects such as Working Woodlands (£2.9m), funded primarily by Objective 5b, aim to encourage the management of woodland through the development of markets and support of businesses involved with timber harvesting and processing. Adding value is a key factor for success. 900ha. of woodland has been restored to management so far with 114 businesses being offered support. Over the Region approximately 80,000ha. (40%) of woodland of all types currently are not managed. To restore these woodlands to management is essential for sustainable rural employment, the long-term survival of the woodlands themselves and for the South West's landscape and environment as a whole.
The average annual yield (standing timber) is approximately 850,000 cubic metres for hardwood and 1,037,000 cubic metres for softwood reflecting the optimum growing conditions within the South West. The quality of much broad-leaved timber will not be very good, though this is usually due to the history of past management rather than the inherent potential of such woodlands. Some of the conifer woodlands, however, are of very high quality, depending on species and location. The timber processing plant is the CSC Forest Products chipboard (panel board) factory at South Molton which has an annual demand of 280,000 tonnes. Of this, 100,000 tonnes are small roundwood and 180,000 comes from recycled wood fibre and sawmill waste. Sawmilling in the West Country now revolves around many small mills with only a few larger ones. Much of the timber, both small roundwood and larger sawmill timber is transported out of the Region, particularly to South Wales. This range of small mills across the Region provides local employment and with the high element exported out of the South West there is considerable potential for expansion.
The South West employs approximately 3,900 people in forestry from planting and establishment to harvesting, haulage and processing - around 10% of the Forestry workforce in England. Self-employment on farm woodlands will be in addition to this. Forestry is a particularly useful rural employment as a survey has found that in the industry 86% of direct employees and 25% on contract labour live within 10 miles of where they work. Within England nearly 40% work on private estates and 50% for forestry companies and the wood-processing industries.
The recreation and tourism aspects must not be forgotten. The Forest of Dean hosts over 1 million visits each year, from the general day visitor to specific recreational activities including climbing, cycling, bird watching and orienteering. There are 300,000 camper nights. The result is an estimated £30m to benefit the local economy and illustrates the potential of appropriate woodland development. Woodlands are increasingly linked with long distance footpaths and cycleways, e.g. through the work of Sustrans.
The South West also includes 2 of England's 12 Community Forests, the Forest of Avon, Bristol and the Great Western Forest, Swindon. In addition there are 186 woodlands with agreed community access in the Region; of these 105 are within the 2 Community Forests. Those with the Woodland Grant Scheme's Community Woodland Supplement including a 52ha. community woodland with Plymouth City.
The Forest of Avon covers 221 square miles. Within and close to the Forest is a population of nearly 900,000, and 35% of the area is urban with the remainder agricultural. The target is to plant 6,500ha. of new woodland and increase the woodland cover from 5% to 27% over the next 40-50 years. The Forest already contains important and extensive woodlands especially to the south west of the city. As well as creating more woodland it is intended to improve access, recreation, habitat value and landscape quality.
The Great Western Forest covers 140 square miles. The population in and close to the Forest is around 250,000. It will rely on agricultural and urban fringe land to achieve its expansion target of 39% woodland (from a baseline of 3%). The area of existing woodland is significantly lower than the Forest of Avon.