Wood works

Stacked up: timber demand in the UK is tied to the construction industry Stacked up: timber demand in the UK is tied to the construction industry

A timber handling renaissance is bringing benefits for ports with space to spare. John Bensalhia reports

Sherlock Holmes, Star Wars, Elvis... one minute they're below the radar, the next minute they've made an almighty comeback. It's common practice: whether it's a trend, franchise or sector, a comeback from a quiet spell is bigger and better than ever before.

Take the timber sector. Rob Gearing, head of business development at Peel Ports London Medway, sums up the statistics in the last 12 years for UK timber imports: “UK timber imports peaked in 2003 at 4.8m tonnes, in line with the economy and housing boom. It remained reasonably strong until 2006 (nearly 4m tonnes), and fell rapidly to 2.3m tonnes by 2008. It has climbed back up in the meantime, to just over 3m tonnes in 2013, and is expected to continue gradual growth as the economy improves and more new housing/buildings are built.”

Timber is back with a vengeance, and ports are capitalising on the increasing demand. As Mr Gearing explains, growth levels have been seen at Peel Ports. “We are seeing a large growth in timber at Peel Ports London Medway specifically at our Sheerness Port where we work with our Customer Crown Timber. We carry out the treatment of the timber on behalf of Crown and seen a very large growth in treated product.”

Thomas Boyle explains the main aspects of timber handling at Montrose Port Authority: “We export timber to two major destinations: one in Rostock, Germany, the other in Gruvon, Sweden. The timber that we export is used for chipping products and pulp paper. We use a high quality of Scottish pine which takes approximately 25 years to grow. A notable aspect of timber handling in Scotland is that for every tree taken down, between one and three are replanted depending on government legislation at the time.

“We also import timber which is mostly sawn. This is used for the construction industry, one of the biggest sectors for timber. The building market needs timber for new builds. Requirements for timber often hinge on how well the construction industry is doing. If the new build sector goes quiet, this can have an impact on timber sales.”


Tilbury's distribution

Another example of the timber revival is the Port of Tilbury's agreement with L&G Forest Products for a 70,000 sq ft timber hub to serve the Grafton Group and others in the country. The Grafton Group has seen an increase in demand from its Buildbase UK depots, and consequently, a new bespoke timber hub will be created to ship in the timber, store it, and distribute it around the country.

Paul Dale, senior asset manager at the Port of Tilbury, comments: “We’ve worked with L&G for a number of years to develop a timber distribution centre which suits their business and delivers for their customers." Tilbury handles in excess of 3m tonnes of forest products each year.

Meanwhile, Sweden's Port of Gothenburg has recently opened a transloading terminal to handle timber products. Because Gothenburg sees a large amount of paper, pulp and timber product exports, the port introduced a terminal dedicated to handling over 1m cu m of timber each year. The timber can be transferred by sawmills via road or rail to the terminal where it will then be loaded and prepared for shipments to their required destinations.

With the right facilities, timber is easy to handle with a quick turnaround. As Mr Gearing explains, timber handling can be a port-centric operation: “We discharge the vessel, store the timber, treat the timber both high pressure and low pressure as well as a fire retardant treatment and then dispatch it to the end customer for Crown. At times this has been a 24 hour, seven day a week operation.

“Our port-centric, specialist timber handling facilities are flexible which means we can tailor solutions to the needs of our customers and add value to supply chains. Crown Timber is one example of this as we have used our expertise to operate their dedicated timber treating facility for them on site at London Medway.”


Close to customers

The proximity of any port in relation to its customer is crucial in fast, efficient timber management, he adds. “London Medway is close to the UK’s major importers and thanks to our strategic ports across the UK, we are well connected to the high density of construction firms in the North of the UK. Our multimodal connectivity gives us excellent links to the motorway, rail and sea networks, which helps reduce inland transport. This in turn allows us to offer a more efficient, cost effective and environmentally-friendly timber handling solution.”

Another aspect for ports to consider is its proximity to social dwellings. Says Mr Boyle: “In days gone by, the thunderous groan during timber loading had some of the locals up in arms! Nowadays, we manage timber between the hours of six in the morning till 11 at night.”

Ports looking to start timber operations must consider a number of issues. One of these is stockpiling as ports need ample storage facilities to store timber. “A general cargo is in the region of between 1,500 and 2,000 tonnes of logs, which is a considerable amount to stock in ports. If a port was looking to start up timber trading, then the operator needs to make sure that the port has the right storage facilities and access,” he says.

Another point that ports need to bear in mind is timber trading's seasonal calendar. The late autumn/winter months bring inevitable adverse weather in the Northern Hemisphere, which can prove to be a major obstacle. Says Mr Boyle: “In Scotland, the winter weather affects the timber. In addition, the route to the Gruvon plant is affected by the freeze up of a canal. On the whole, timber trading at Montrose tends to start again in February after the worst of the weather has passed. We have a busy spring and summer, and then a mad rush in September and October time before the weather starts to affect the process.”


European dominance

Mr Gearing comments on notable regional trends: “Over the past five years, about two-thirds of all timber imported into the UK has come from Sweden, Latvia and Finland, and there is no evidence that the dominance of this region will change.

“Whereas in related products, e.g. plywood, the UK is very dependent on Far Eastern imports, this is not the case in timber, and there does not appear to be a trend towards large volumes from this region.”

With the timber revival back in business, should ports looking to branch out into this sector go for it? Mr Boyle concludes: “Ports need to consider a number of factors when managing timber cargoes. Does the port allow for facilities such as weighbridges? Have they got the right facilities for storage? The most important thing for a port is to be prepared if they wish to consider dealing with timber cargoes. If they have the right facilities, accessibility and preparation, then these will serve them well for timber trading.”

Taking the rough with the smooth

One aspect of timber handling that ports must manage is that of rules and regulations.

Timber-related regulations have been introduced to ensure best environmental practice and to prevent illegally harvested timber and timber-related products. The 2010 Illegal Timber Regulation, for example, requires EU traders who are putting timber or timber-related goods on the market for the first time to make sure that all information is given (with regards to origin, quantity and quality, for example) as well as risk assessment and risk mitigation.

The most notable regulation that ports currently face is that of the IED (Industrial Emissions Directive). The majority of UK timber treatment businesses must get an IED permit by the deadline of July 7, 2015.

Could this be an issue for ports? Rob Gearing, head of business development at Peel Ports London Medway, comments: “We believe that some smaller operators (customers who have their own plants) may find the cost, both financial and time, simply too onerous and decide to close their existing plants.”

In order to successfully get a permit, the applicants must prove that their treatment plants stand up to BAT standards, demonstrating that they can prevent harmful emissions to the environment.


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