Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 100 - 108)



  100. Do you have a discretion to say, "Sorry, we cannot do this. It is not deliverable"?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) Yes. We produced a draft Service Delivery Agreement with our bidding proposals for the spending review which had a whole series of targets which we thought would be achievable if our funding bid was agreed. That was then not agreed and we duly returned and revised those targets and said, "In the light of the funds available, the original draft could not be followed through."

  101. Your motto is really: "You get what you pay for"?
  (Mr Hill-Tout) Indeed.

  102. Your targets are related closely to the English Forestry Strategy. Are there different targets in Scotland and Wales and how will this impact back on the English targets?
  (Mr Bills) We have yet to conclude in Wales and in Scotland there is still some holding out too. To be frank, they are still waiting to see what kind of endowment they get from taking forestry over post-devolution. There are constant themes there. Obviously, the Rural Development Plans are important. Sustainability is important also. There will be similar targets in those countries but perhaps different emphases.

  103. How is the volume of timber to be harvested determined? Should market conditions play a role in the size of the harvest?
  (Mr Bills) Inevitably they do. There was probably more grown in the United Kingdom forests this year than was cut. There is some harvesting that you must do. You have to make the judgment. Thinning, for example. Even if you just break even or lose a little, it is a wise thing to do because if you do not do it at a certain time in the cycle you will not do it and then if you do not do it you do not get the quality of sawlog, which is the higher value product towards the end of the rotation. We might have to fell because of wind throw or the potential of wind throw, like if we do not cut it now it could be eventually lost in a gale on some of our less stable soils. The best plans can be impacted also if we do have a major gale. We could end up with more wood to sell in a certain region than we otherwise would have anticipated. Yes. In general, over time, we ought to be matching the market as best we can.

  104. Presumably it is the great gales which flooded most of France which are partly responsible for the price collapse?
  (Mr Bills) There has been an element of that. It is not as bad as we thought it would be. Perhaps where it has been the worst has been in the high value timbers like oaks, which are very valuable and well worthwhile bringing across the Channel.

  105. The Service Delivery Agreement does not refer to protecting forests. Do you imagine that your responsibility for plant health and disease will continue? How can one assess how effective you are in this? We talk about measuring outputs. You said some are very difficult—how do people enjoy a forest? The Treasury is keen on these sorts of things but how do you manage?
  (Mr Bills) It is one of these measures where you can say, "This did not happen. Therefore, it must be successful." We are more than just the inspectorate at the ports. A lot of our research and our research agency is backing up on appropriate control measures, identifying risks and drawing up contingency plans. If you ask how I can assess how effective we are, it is quite clear that we continue to avoid many of the major diseases which are about in continental Europe and which can arise from north America. We do intercept a number of dangerous situations at source, at the ports.
  (Mr Hill-Tout) Protection covers both the plant health areas that Mr Bills has been referring to but also the operation of our felling regulatory responsibilities, which we take extremely seriously and certainly our belief in the exercise of those duties. The area of woodland and the composition of woodland is being protected and secured. The area of challenge for us is in the quality of those woodlands. Here, we are mindful that, in the case of England, only about 38 per cent of all private woodlands are under any kind of scheme with us. There may be relatively insidious effects through the browsing activities of sheep or deer, development pressures, that kind of thing that might be going on. We are in the process at the moment of developing wider indicators which we can measure with appropriate statistical sampling systems to state very clearly the degree to which the woodlands of the country are in a favourable conditions in relation to some of the basic principles of ecological sustainability.

Dr Turner

  106. I notice that if you look at the restocking that you are doing, the encouragement to extra forestry being planted represents about a ten per cent increase in woodland. Are your activities important on a national or international scale at all in terms of our contribution to the greenhouse gases?
  (Mr Bills) Probably not. There are 152 million tonnes of carbon that this country produces. In order to sequester that, we would have to plant out an area some four times the size of the United Kingdom, which is clearly not possible.

  107. If we compare what is involved to some of our other initiatives which we are taking at the margins—
  (Mr Bills) The other way of looking at it is that even on the 12.5 per cent government commitment for reduction we would have to plant something like six million hectares of forest where we only have 2.5 million now. The importance I think is to get wood into structures because of the low embedded energy. The opportunity in this country, particularly in England and Wales where so little of our building is timber framed, is the opportunity that needs to be pursued because you can build wonderful houses out of it and this wood is non-toxic, biodegradable, recyclable and solar powered. For that reason we have joined up with, strangely enough, exporters into this country to put together a major wood promotion called "Wood for Good" scheme, a £3 million a year for three years scheme. The idea is to grow the cake, to point out the environmental benefits of building with wood, but recognising that what you are likely to do here within this country in terms of sequestering is not going to be significant in terms of the government's overall carbon plans.


  108. How far down the road of genetic modification are we in trees? What sort of things would you be looking to get trees to do by that process?
  (Mr Bills) In this country there is very little work. We are not directly involved in any work in this country but obviously—I was a scientist once—it is not something we should ignore in the longer term if we can get over the hurdles. The saw millers would say, "Can you grow a square tree?" I have been in other countries where there has been a lot of interest in the glyphosate resistant gene, so that particularly in intensive forestry circumstances you can apply a broad spectrum herbicide without affecting the crop. Those sorts of things would be of interest. The natural ones that tree breeders are looking for are also ones that you may well look for in GMOs. They would be things like enhanced growth rate, enhanced form but also resistance to pathogens in general.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, we could happily divert on this for some time but that is not the purpose of asking you to come here. Thank you very much indeed. You have undertaken to send us a reasonable amount of material. We would be very grateful to receive that, but we are thankful to you for coming and we wish you a safe and as rapid as possible a journey home.

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