Forestry leaders must band together to change public attitudes to spruce trees and commercial forestry, conference delegates heard at the launch of an industry report in Edinburgh.

The call came as experts from forestry services firm Tilhill and forestry agency Goldcrest highlighted the fall in tree planting in the past year at the launch of The UK Forest Market Report 2023.*

The firms say the report is the most comprehensive publicly available year-on-year record of activity in the UK forestry sector.

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The report found that commercial forestry values fell for the first time in almost a decade with a 10%-20% drop in the past year.

In Scotland, average prices for planting land suitable for commercial forestry dropped 22% from £12,800 per gross hectare to £9,900 per gross hectare “in the most significant development across all forest market data this year”.

It was hoped, according to the report, that a “normalisation in commercial planting land prices in Scotland would spur much needed woodland creation, both commercial and native” going forward.

Just 13,000 hectares of trees were planted this year, a drop of 7%, and 43% of the national target of 30,000 hectares. While Scotland continued to lead the charge with 8,200 hectares planted – more than two thirds of which were conifers – this was a 27% drop from 10,400ha in 2022. Broadleaf planting amounted to 51% of all UK tree planting.

Xander Mahony, head of forestry investment at Tilhill, said the industry needed to work together to change negative public perceptions about Sitka spruce, the workhorse of the timber industry.

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He likened it to previous farming campaigns raising awareness about where milk came from and said there was “a similar disconnect”. “People want things made out of wood, wood looks nice, we have our buildings made out of CLT (cross-laminated timber) but they don’t connect that to growing good Sitka in plantations and so breaking through that communication barrier and making that connection is really important.

Jon Lambert, partner at Goldcrest, told the conference that people shied away from change but there was scope for more tree planting.

While highlighting the enduring “resilience” of UK forestry, the continuing emergence of new investors, and confidence in the long-term future of timber underpinned by the need to replace plastic, steel, and concrete with sustainable forest products, the report found that supply tightened, prices dropped and buyers became increasingly selective in the last year. Additionally, demand for timber slowed sharply in the short-term leading to a dramatic reduction in processing volumes.

2023 saw £212m of commercial forestry listings on the open market, up 9%, with two properties accounting for an “extraordinary” 70% of the total value listed for sale and Scotland enjoying a 91% market share. However, the number of listings fell 39% to just 35 properties.

Mr Mahony said: “This continues the £200m observed market size trend into a fourth year. The headline number, however, is boosted by two huge assets (Griffin in Perthshire and Glen Shira in Argyll) and flatters a market that was otherwise unusually small.”

Mr Lambert said that most properties brought to the market had still sold but that after a “staggering” run, pricing was down 10-20% depending on quality and location. “Purchasers are generally more cautious than 12 or 18 months ago, leading to longer due diligence periods, an increased demand to rectify ‘blemishes’ before completion, and a desire for higher yields.”

He highlighted a continuing demand for good quality planting land but said appropriate sites were hard to find. The total value of planting land listings amounted to £49.9m, down 24%.