Tree planting helps mitigate the effects of climate change, reduces flooding and encourages biodiversity - as well as offering recreational opportunities.
Tree planting must be made easier to encourage investment in Northumberland and offer new opportunities in the uplands after Brexit, a forestry summit has been told.
Councillor Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland County Council, told the meeting hosted at the EGGER forestry site in Hexham: “We have the UK’s largest man-made forest on our doorstep (Kielder) but we are not doing enough; we are importing millions of tonnes of timber.”
Despite Kielder, forest cover in Northumberland is just eight percent, below the English average (10 percent) and UK average (13 percent). The EU average is around 35 percent.
At the same time, the UK is the world’s second-largest net importer of wood products after China, with 80 percent of timber coming from overseas.
Councillor Jackson said: "We are not doing enough in terms of production and the potential for Northumberland and the whole of the Borderlands area to do that is enormous.
“We need to find a way to get through funding and bureaucratic issues because it’s not particularly easy to plant a new forest, for reasons that escape me.
"As a renewable resource, it seems to be common sense for us as a society to grow more timber."
Councillor Jackson, a farmer, was speaking at an event to discuss the role of forestry and wood processing in the Borderlands Growth Deal, which aims to revitalise five areas either side of the English-Scottish border - Northumberland, Cumbria, Dumfries & Galloway, The Scottish Borders and the city of Carlisle.
He said farmers in the uplands clearly faced challenges after Brexit and that forestry had a big part to play in the future of those areas.
Simon Hart, EGGER Forestry business development manager, said: "We support the need to plant more trees, as wood is one of the key raw materials required to manufacture our products.
“At Hexham, EGGER has invested approximately £250 million in the site over the last decade to ensure it is one of the most technologically advanced chipboard plants in Europe.”
EGGER is the largest manufacturing employer in Northumberland, with over 600 employees and produces a range of wood-based material products for the furniture, interior design and housebuilding industries.
"More than 100 lorries deliver roundwood, wood chips, sawdust and recycled wood every day for the company to make its products."
Mr Hart added: “Approximately 60 percent of the raw materials required to make EGGER high quality products are classed as 'virgin fibre' (that is roundwood from newly-harvested trees and woodchips and sawdust from sawmills).”
Modern and multi-purpose
He said there were investors ready to put money into planting modern, multi-purpose forests, with Forestry Commission grants to support the investment, but added: "The problem is that it is really difficult to get permission to plant trees in the North of England, so people go to Scotland, where it is easier.
"The North of England is letting the opportunity slip between its fingers. From EGGER and the wider industry's perspective, it's a simple message: PLANT MORE TREES."
Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, which represents 1,500 UK forestry and wood-using businesses, said: "There is a different attitude in Scotland. The presumption is that we should find ways to plant modern, multi-purpose and well-designed forests in the right places.
"It is recognised that such forests can deliver good-quality rural jobs and investment and provide timber to build attractive, efficient new homes very quickly.
“At the same time, there are significant environmental benefits - tree planting helps mitigate the effects of climate change, reduces flooding and encourages biodiversity - as well as offering recreational opportunities."
EGGER has produced a document asking for the Borderlands Growth Deal to recognise the significance of forestry and wood processing to the north of England and south of Scotland.
Other large wood processors in the Borderlands include A&J Scott near Wooler, BSW in Carlisle and James Jones & Sons in Lockerbie.
The document, supported by Confor and other forestry and wood processing businesses, calls for: a Forestry Investment Zone to stimulate new planting in Northumberland; a Strategic Timber Transport Fund for northern England to match the one working successfully in Scotland, to create new forest roads and reduce pressure on fragile rural roads; a skills audit to plug future gaps in the industry, especially drivers of forest machines.
Janice Rose, who leads on the Borderlands Growth Deal for Northumberland County Council, said a skills audit for a range of sectors, including forestry, would be in a high-level summary of the deal, due to be launched this autumn by the UK and Scottish Governments and five local authorities.
She said the team was also considering a timber transport officer role and that a pilot Forestry Investment Zone (FIZ) in north-west Cumbria could provide helpful feedback for future FIZs.
Ms Rose said forestry and wood processing was very much in the minds of the Borderlands Deal team. "It's not just about a Forestry Investment Zone, it's about how we embed forestry in everything," she said.
This would involve 'opportunity mapping' local areas to examine how different land uses, such as farming, forestry and tourism, would work best in specific parts of the Borderlands - and how economic, environmental and social benefits would work together in those areas.
Marianne Brooker is a contributing editor for The Ecologist. This story was based on a press release from the Confederation of Forest Industries.