Where have all the oak forests gone?

//Where have all the oak forests gone?

 A review of oak timber imports into the UK and whether oak

timber should be classified as a sustainable resource.

 

Compiled my Director of Glorious Gardens Sussex and Undergraduate Students Consultancy Programme.

 

This review examines:

1)How much oak is imported into the UK per year

 

2)  The sustainability of using oak products.

 

3)  The complicated supply chain of oak products

 

4) Can certifying bodies be trusted

 

5)  The policies of UK companies that import and sell oak products

 

 

___________________________________________

 

Introduction

 

The research presented in this review finds that far from being sustainable, oak is in rapid decline the world over with trees being felled on an unprecedented scale. Oak is often being harvested illegally with murky, unaccountable supply chains allowing this product to enter the market marked as certified when it is not. This review also highlights an alarming lack of evidence that oak is being replanted at all, and where it is, it is unclear that the biodiversity in an oak forest is being looked after.

 

In short, oak is disappearing from the world

 

UK and Oak use

 

Worldwide, nearly one third of all oak species are threatened with extinction, yet in the last 10 years countries like the UK have been flooded with cheap oak products such as furniture and outdoor sleepers.

 

The UK is the second largest importer of oak in the world. (1) Despite having oak forest reserves, oak in England is running out, with the last of the trees the Victorians planted now being harvested(1.5). The UK has turned to imports primarily from the US, Poland, Italy and Germany amongst other countries (2).

 

The Forestry Commission estimate that of the 496,000m3 of sawn hardwood imported from EU countries in 2014, 168,000m3 was oak, with a total estimate of 268,000m3 of oak if worldwide imports are included. (2.2)

 

The UK also imports a huge amount of finished wood products from countries like China who are the biggest importer of oak in the world. Half (51%) of China’s timber imports in the 2010’s were sourced from countries with weak governance, poor rule of law and/or documented evidence of widespread illegal deforestation. (2.5) with Russia accounting for 24% of China imports. Though this review was unable to quantify specific oak import quantities from these figures, a considerable proportion of illegal Russian timber exports is from oak.

 

Is Oak sustainable?

 

Sustainability, according to the  IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change), is meeting the needs of those living today without compromising the needs of future generations. In terms of oak forests, this definition can be extended to included the preservation for future generations of the complex biodiversity within old age oak forests.

 

A quick search of the internet using the term ’Is Oak Sustainable?’ presents the searcher with 50 or so companies in the first few search pages claiming that oak is a sustainable product as it grows in the ground and has the potential to grow again. There is very little alternative to this view point presented, as most people writing about ‘Sustainable Oak’ have a financial investment.

 

The definition of sustainable oak also needs to be questioned from two perspectives- the extent to which mature oak trees are being replaced and the wider biodiversity loss.

 

1) Are mature oak forests being replaced?

 

There is mounting evidence that oak forests from countries like the ones the UK import from are being drastically depleted, with little evidence of oak being replanted and regenerated, plus it can take up to 150 years for Oak to be ready for harvesting so this requires a very long term investment in the future.(3)

 

Our examination of data has found that oak forests are being destroyed with little incentive to replant. From what this review could identify, very few countries are replanting their oak forests after felling, even those that have policies to manage and replant their forests.

 

USA. The UK imports 44% of its sawn oak products from the US which has extensive White Oak forests. These trees can live up to 300 years, supporting rich ecosystems. However according to the White Oak Initiative (4), these forests are not being maintained for future generations. Because 75% of these forests are made from mature oak specimens, at the current rate of deforestation, they will begin to drastically decline in the next 10-15 years without a young stock coming up to take its place. Even thought their are some planting initiatives such as the American Forests (5) which involves planting 2 million saplings, the Reforestation Hub believes that the area of of reforestation that is needed requires 148 million trees.(6 and 7)

 

FRANCE. Although France harvest their oaks only over 200 years old (47) and promote growth in younger trees, there is still the inevitable push for supply. There is little evidence surrounding France replanting their oak forests, and therefore France’s supply of oak available to sawmills halved to 1.25 million cubic metres over the last decade(48)

CHINA: China exported $20.5B in wood products and although China is replanting some of their forests, these are typically monocultures, and we found no evidence specifically of this including oak trees or any attempt to reestablish biodiversity(37).

Oak trees are especially influential to an ecosystem change as 2300 species are associated with oak, 320 of which can only be found on oak (9), meaning oak forests support more life forms than any other native forest (10). Even though an oak tree will take up to 150 years to become ready for harvest (11), a dead oak tree is still incredibly valuable to many beetle species, fungi, and even birds (12).  For example, over large areas Germany has replaced their natural oak with spruce and pine monocultures, stripping the land of many oak-specific species (13). Despite this, Germany is still exported 146,000 cubic metres of oak in in 2021(14) and clear-cutting forests has accelerated in Germany since 2018 (15). Also Oak is not as robust as we like to think. It also faces many threats which can affect its regrowth such as Acute Oak Decline, which can kill a mature tree in five years (51). Oak trees are also threatened by the Oak Processionary Moth, which can strip a whole oak tree bare by feeding on the leaves, leaving the tree more vulnerable to other pests and diseases (52). Furthermore, acorns cannot be stored in seed banks (as they do not survive being dried out for preservation).  This means that oak is already a vulnerable species.

Lack of transparency in the Supply Chain

This review found that there is a murky supply chain with oak.

The supply chain is incredibly obscured, where oak and timber can easily go through ‘five or six steps’ before they enter the market (17).

This matters as we have seen evidence that in some countries oak is not being harvested legally with limited if any replanting of young oak forests.

The lack of information surrounding where our oak comes from is concerning as a lack of traceability can mean it is very hard to prove if the oak imported into the UK is sustainable or not. (18).

We have reviewed the practises of several of the UK’ s main source of oak and found the oak supply chain is often so hazy and complex that there is a high chance that much of the oak we are importing into the UK is not as sustainable as we think it is.

We have seen evidence that in some countries oak is not being harvested legally with limited if any replanting of young oak forests.. Given that 10% of Europe’s growing stock is oak (19), we can start to see the effects our increasing demand and unsustainable practices have on our forests.

ITALY: The UK imported 15,000 tonnes of oak-sawn wood from Italy in 2015 (21)(WWF, most recent figure available) and most of their wood products are imported from other countries. Although 31% of Italy is forested(20), and 6% of Italy’s wood production is oak, Italy is the biggest market for importing Romanian wood products, accounting for 11% of Romania’s wood exports (22).  According to OCCRP (Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project), half of all timber harvested in ROMANIA is considered illegal. David Ghel, manager of traceability at the EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency), tells a story of the ‘timber mafia’, when the transition back to private ownership after the dissolution of the Soviet Union meant people were claiming rights to forest land which was not theirs and sending logging companies to cut it down. Romania therefore has lost around 336,000 hectares of virgin forest cover between 2001 and 2018 (OCCRP), and the presence of oak in Romanian forests has decreased from 44.5% to only 19.3% (23) Considering the extent of illegal operations, this indicates that this oak is unlikely to be replanted, leading to an extreme loss of biodiversity in some of the the last virgin oak forests. So when is Italian oak Italian?

POLAND: The UK’s third largest sawn oak wood exporter, Poland, also has a similar story. Poland’s oak imports are more than three times the volume of their exports (24), meaning that oak wood imported to the UK from Poland could likely have originated elsewhere. In 2021, Poland imported $48.1 million worth of oak, of which 31% came from Ukraine (25). The UK imported 6,000 tonnes of their oak sawn-wood from Poland in 2015 (26) meaning there is a chance that around 2,000 tonnes of this could actually be sourced from Ukraine. Furthermore, according to Timber Media, Ukraine could account for 20% of oak imports into Europe (27). Ukraine has issues with regenerating their oak (which has worsened since the war). A study was conducted in an area of 284,000 hectares and found that only 20% of oak forests had sufficient regeneration (28). Only 1% of the trees studied were under 40 years old, indicating poor regeneration over the past 50 years (OEC).

RUSSIA: Russia also contribute to the unsustainable deforestation of oak forests. The UK imported 1.6% of our hardwoods from Russia in 2021 (29), and Russia exported around 10 million wood products to the EU (30). Oak and spruce dominate Eastern Russia’s forests, and the increasing demand for wood globally has fuelled corruption in Russia, where the EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency) estimates that 80% of timber harvested in Eastern Russia is done so illegally (31). This increases the chance of illegal oak entering our supply chain. Illegal logging could include logging without permits, logging with fake paperwork, logging more than permitted volumes, logging protected species, and mis-declaring species. For example, Mongolian Oak is endemic in Eastern Russia, and is often harvested two times more than is permitted (32). The UK importing from Russia and the EU (who also imports from Russia) means it is quite likely our oak wood has been sourced illegally, contributing to the deforestation of oak forests. The situation in Russia has obviously changed since the war but it seems a typical pattern amounts many Eastern European countries.

Can we reply on Certification?

There are two main certifying bodies used by most smaller and larger companies contacted for this review. The FEFC (Programme of Endorsement of Forest Certification) and the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Their remit is to reassure consumers that timber with their certification is sustainable. However, due to the sourcing issues outlined above it is hard to be reassured that even certified oak purchased in the UK truly comes from the country it claims. There are also weaknesses in the certification processes.

The FSC in particular has recently come under criticism for greenwashing and failing to identify unsustainable forestry practices. Greenpeace has said FSC is not consistently applied across all regions, meaning when governance is weak, the judgement of forestry practices is skewed and therefore Greenpeace has withdrawn its FSC membership. Often, businesses use FSC as a proof of compliance with legislation and sustainability, but many times FSC has verified illegal timber. For example, Earthsight discovered FSC-certified Ukrainian timber was being logged unethically and sold to IKEA.

FSC does not issue certifications personally, but instead uses third-party auditors. This often leads to competition between the firms, which can lead to corruption and bribery as a normal practice.  The allows illegal wood from certain locations to still be certified as sustainable, discrediting the whole certification system (33).

PEFC (Programme of Endorsement of Forest Certification) also has its weaknesses: WWF did an investigation comprising of 21 case studies and found that PEFC has ‘weak standards, weak governance, and a lack of transparency(34). ICIJ conducted a report on major environmental auditing firms and found that many destructive practices were still being certified as sustainable. For example, a group of Canadian logging companies were operating under a ‘sustainable forest management plan’, certified by an auditor, which enabled them to cut down trees in Indigenous forestland, affecting the community’s territory and way of life (35).

Although buying certified wood is better than uncertified wood, it is worth noting that both certification schemes which seem to be relied upon as proof for sustainable practices are often unable to live up to their standards.

What efforts are UK Companies making to ensure their oak is sustainable?

We contacted various UK importers of Oak products they were quick to assure us that the oak wood they sell is certified. However they were unaware of the complex supply chain and the amount of illegal logging, the mixing of legal and illegal wood and the lack of replanting.

The three larger companies, B&Q, Oak Furniture Land and Ikea refused to be interviewed and referred us to their websites.

Oak Furnitureland’s website did say they are going to plant 100,000 trees by the end of 2023, but with no action plan to make this happen or evidence that it had happened. They source their oak from the USA, Croatia, Germany, France, Austria, Slovenia, and China

IKEA had much more information available on their website, with a large page dedicated to sustainability. Each year increases IKEA increases its demand for trees by 2 million, making them the biggest consumer of wood in the world (38). From their website, IKEA purchase their wood from many countries, mostly within Europe. However, many reports claim IKEA has been using illegal wood from Russia, Ukraine, and Romania to meet its growing demand (39).

For example, IKEA owns 46,700 Hectares in Romania, making IKEA the largest landowner in the country and even created a new company to manage these forests (40). Romania is home to one of the largest and most important old-growth, temperate forests left in the world (41), and their forests are declining, with 317,000 Hectares lost to logging between 2001 and 2017, and between half and two-thirds of the country’s virgin forest has been lost (42).  Illegal logging is also an issue, where illegal timber accounts for more than 50% of its wood (43). Furthermore, Romanian authorities say they are only able to apprehend 1% of their illegal logging activity, and the rest is allowed to find its way into global supply chains(44). Often suppliers will store illegal and legal wood together, they are therefore mixed and become inseparable (45). Therefore, it is highly likely illegal wood is used in the UK through companies such as IKEA.

This is a similar story for their Russian supplies, where, according to Earthsight, IKEA’s wood from Russia was from protected forests, where illegal logging between 2012 and 2018 allowed for an additional 689,000 cubic metres of timber to be harvested (46). IKEA has also utilised Ukrainian companies, such as VGSM, which carry out illegal logging. Many of these illegal logs had the FSC stamp of approval.

Summary

This Review has uncovered very little evidence that oak is a sustainable choice of wood to use.

Europe has less than 3% of the world’s remaining old-growth forests (in which oak can be found), and more than 150 squared kilometres are being cleared each year (49). Primary forests in Europe are rare and declining, and aren’t being protected, making them vulnerable to human disturbance and extinction (50), especially in Eastern Europe, where large areas of primary forest exist but are being lost at an alarming pace.

Oak forests are being cut down to fulfil the demand for cheap and durable wood in the UK to make furniture, building materials, veneers, and flooring. Although an oak chair may last a generation, it may very well not come from sustainable sources. Supply chains are incredibly difficult to follow, and certification doesn’t seem to be reliable so there is a likelihood that unsustainably sourced and illegal wood is being imported into the UK.. This slow-growing tree faces many challenges and there is an alarming lack of evidence of countries willing to replant their oaks to sustain us for future generations and preserve the bio diversity that depend on them.

It is ironic that oak is historically associated with honour, wisdom, and longevity in many cultures but is now being harvested for cheap furniture and garden sleepers, at the risk of its’ very survival

Given though most gardens are revamped every decade or two and furniture fashions change constantly it might be time to look at the pine alternatives more seriously.

 

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By |2024-03-29T14:56:28+00:00March 29th, 2024|Uncategorised|Comments Off on Where have all the oak forests gone?

About the Author:

In 2006 I formed Glorious Gardens, gathering together skilled practitioners to offer not just design but implementation of these designs and maintenance packages where we could look after the gardens once we had created them. Throughout my career I have designed gardens to inspire people with the heart aching beauty of nature, with shapes, colours, moods and proportions to pleasure the body and calm and delight the mind. I am also an artist who works with colour and abstract shapes and I bring this sensitivity to the 4 dimensions of a garden. I am very good at listening to clients and I’m able to draw out the essence of what a client wants for their outdoor space.