Timber imports on the rise

The timber import market enjoyed a stronger month in April 2024, with volumes 4.7% higher than those in April 2023, according to industry statistics.

By the end of April the deficit gap between 2024 and 2023 was 109,000 cubic metres, down from 150,000 m3 at the end of Q1.

The value of softwood imports over the first four months of 2024 was 7% lower than during the same period in 2023, caused by a 4% reduction in volume and a 3% fall in the average price of a basket of softwood imports.

Softwood plywood imports experienced probably the greatest change in sources of supply for many years. Volume in the month was around 5,000 m3 higher than in April 2023, with Brazil leading the increases by supplying nearly 3,500 m3 more in the month. China and Chile also supplied more, as did Uruguay and Canada, though there was a substantial fall in volume from Finland.  Overall for the quarter, the value of all plywood imports was still 10% below the level in the first four months of 2023. Softwood plywood values were 18% lower and hardwood plywood values remained 7% down.

The statistics from Timber Development UK (TDUK) reveal some emerging trends in the timber market.

Housing starts in England have been in decline, falling 39% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2024, following a 50% fall in the previous quarter. Despite this impact on demand for timber, timber imports of softwoods from Norway have grown significantly during 2024 – up 14% despite overall softwood imports being 4.5% lower. Norway exports both sawn and planed pine and spruce to the UK and, while sawn spruce remains the largest product by volume, the driver of growth in 2024 has been planed spruce. At nearly 18,000 m3, volumes have almost doubled (up 98%) compared to last year.

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Comparing tropical hardwood imports for the first four months of each of the last three years also reveals strong growth from the Congo Republic. A near doubling of share to account for 26% of tropical hardwoods resulted from an 18% growth in 2024 to date, driven mainly largely by a 40% increase in sawn Sapelli.

Romanian oak has also been gaining favour among UK hardwood importers for a number of years but in 2024 significantly higher quantities of sawn beech have propelled Romania’s share of temperate hardwoods into double figures. A tiny volume imported in the early months of 2023 has increased to more than 4,500 m3 in 2024 to date, enabling Romania to account for 40% of the UK’s beech imports.

Spain is also regular supplier of many types of particleboard products to the UK, with the highest volumes seen in standard unworked varieties and melamine-faced chipboards. In the first four months of 2024 all particleboard imports were 3% lower than seen last year, but Spain has increased its supply by 110% and more than doubled its share of all imported particleboard, with a near threefold increase in standard unworked particleboards.

Timber Development UK (TDUK) head of technical and trade, Nick Boulton, said: “Although overall import volumes remain below those in 2023, it’s encouraging to see the deficit continuing to fall, with all changes in volume imports now down to single figures. The UK’s poor overall economic performance during Q1 of 2024, and further falls in housebuilding starts, have naturally had an impact, as have the continuing uncertainty and low consumer confidence that always impacts on the housing market and the important RMI sector.

“However, now the general election is over and we have a new government, the timber industry must unite and continue to call for the much-needed investment the construction industry needs in order to return to growth.

“It is encouraging to hear that new chancellor Rachel Reeves is already signalling the need for investment in construction and infrastructure to help stimulate economic growth, but time will tell whether this new government will be able to drive through this much-needed investment.  TDUK will continue to lobby and help the new government understand why timber is such an important material to help the UK achieve its construction and net zero targets.”

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