An emergency meeting of forest industry leaders, including ConFor, was held in Edinburgh, on 08 January 2010, to discuss ways of moving timber from snow-bound forests to the mills, some of which are experiencing a reduction of about 75% of raw material supplies, threatening production. A number of key processors are in real danger of running out of raw materials. Scotland, north England and Wales have been worst affected.
Many forests are in remote locations, with rural roads closed due to snow and ice and forest roads are similarly impassable. Timber wagon drivers are accustomed to roads that urban HGV drivers would not consider, even without snow. They are inventive and practical, routinely using chains, but safety comes first and no one wants to take risks.
This weather event has been exceptional in terms of its nationwide coverage. Some productive forests have roadside stacks of felled timber awaiting collection, but harvesting operations have also been hit, with about half the usual felling activity taking place. Three weeks of exceptional snow and ice have made working conditions too hazardous, or sites inaccessible, in many places and contractors are forced out of work. Normally, a period of hard winter weather does not deter them, but even when this snow melts, the ground will be excessively wet, presenting a new set of constraints. Harvesting operations and timber wagons are usually stopped in such conditions because of the damage to roads and rides. This means than supplies are unlikely to improve within six to eight weeks.
The largest mills require hundreds of wagon-loads of timber a week, with storage capacity for only a few days’ supply. Any un-planned interruption, such as this, simply means temporary closure. (Most mills were closed for a week over Christmas, as normal.) UPM Caledonian’s papermill in Ayrshire had to close on Sunday for three days due to supply issues.
However, at the meeting, various ideas were discussed to minimise disruption, including:
• Forestry Commission Scotland is the single biggest supplier, with roadside stocks in the forest. It is diverting activity to the more accessible sites.
• Identify key harvesting sites (FCS and private) and routes from there to mills; push for public roads to be cleared.
• ConFor to raise awareness amongst timber growers of the need to harvest wood in the coming weeks and FCS agreed to respond positively to fast-track activity.
• FCS agreed that it will do what it can to aid access to forest roads while restricting damage - there will be restrictions during the thaw and no one wants to see significant damage.
• Action to prepare forest roads where possible and undertake harvesting to anticipate access, both in FCS forests and in the private sector.
• ConFor, with valuable support from the Timber Transport Forum, is preparing representation to seek a temporary extension to driver hours.
• The group will discuss progress and review action weekly.
Stuart Goodall, ConFor’s chief executive, summarised: “Extreme circumstances called for an urgent response. I am delighted at the way in which industry is working together with the Forestry Commission to seek solutions. A sympathetic approach is called for from the authorities, in addition, in order to keep people in work, safely, and mills functioning.”