Raising the profile of homegrown timber is English Woodlands Timber, a Sussex-based timber company and TDUK member with a heritage that traces back to World War II. TDUK visited to find out how the business is demonstrating sustainable forestry management practices that ‘start with the trees’.
Nestled in the South Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, English Woodlands Timber (EWT) sources and supplies high-quality European oak and native temperate hardwoods to builders, furniture makers and joiners across the UK. EWT started life in post-World War II Britain providing forestry management services across Kent and Sussex.
The company is now run by Joint Managing Directors Tom Compton and Ian McNally. Every piece of timber it sells comes with either Chain of Custody or Grown in Britain certification, as part of EWT’s ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the need for strong forestry management processes across the UK.
Tom explains: “We’re foresters; we manage forests on behalf of our clients and we know that the best products come out of those woodlands that are better managed and have all the biodiversity benefits of sustainably sourced timber. Timber is part of a living process – it’s not something that just appears on a shelf.”
Tom studied Forestry at Bangor University and, like many of the people who work at EWT, has a long history of working within forest management. There are even several generations of the same family working at the business – people who have worked in forestry all their lives and who are, themselves, award-winning foresters.
Tom, for example, is one of the English Woodlands Forestry team that manages the 300-ha Shere Manor Estate Woodlands, which has received multiple awards from the Royal Forestry Society. It received the regional Excellence in Silviculture Award in 2019 and, in 2022, was chosen as the regional Best of the Best.
Tom says: “When you step back and look, you realize how deeply woven we are in forestry and wood culture.
“I don’t think there’s a single product we sell that doesn’t have a chain of custody, with the most relevant ones for us here being PEFC and Grown in Britain. Our customers really do like to know that the timber they purchase from us is certified. It gives them reassurance that these woodlands are carefully managed and that you’ve got the right tracking processes in place.”
Among the products that EWT sells are fresh sawn structural beams in Oak and Douglas Fir, seasoned oak beams, fresh sawn cladding, air-dried joinery grade waney and square edge boards, as well as kiln-dried waney edge bords in oak, ash, chestnut, elm, walnut, sycamore and ewe.
The company has extensive tracking processes in place for every piece of timber. Each board can be traced back to the exact forest the timber came from, with details of when it was felled and where it has been stored, all of which gives the customer reassurance that they are buying and working with certified, well-managed timber.
This reassurance has become particularly important since the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted sanctions to be introduced on certain timber species such as Birch Plywood and Siberian Larch, making people more aware of the need to understand where their timber comes from.
“More and more customers are very interested in where their raw material comes from,” Tom says. “People want to make sure they’re not purchasing or using products that are going to cause them problems down the line. When we tell them that we have records of exactly what part of which forest every piece of timber we sell came from, it’s a powerful message.”
Tracing timber from source
As well as choosing the best timbers from the forests it manages for its clients, EWT also works with other forestry teams across the UK and in France to source the best available timbers.
Ian says: “As an example, we sourced an ash tree from Yorkshire that sadly blew down in a storm back in 2022. This particular tree was, in fact, in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the tallest ash tree in the UK. We took the tree, cut it, kiln-dried it, and it is now being prepared for sale to our customers, who will likely transform it into furniture and other internal surfaces. But the fact that we know exactly where it came from typifies that we can trace our timber right back to the individual forest.”
Tom and his team’s knowledge and understanding of forestry allows him to travel the UK sourcing parcels of timber from some of the best woodlands around the country.
Ian continues: “What Tom delivers is a very good understanding of the heritage we have and our understanding and appreciation of forestry. Everything we do starts with the trees – that’s something we never forget.”
The need for strong forest management
Ian and Tom both believe in developing strong partnerships with other timber businesses who share their values around forestry management and biodiversity.
Ian says: “If you haven’t got the right trees you can’t make anything, and sustainability is built into every choice we make about our business. We want to deal with people who have the same values as us in terms of sourcing and using timber. We don’t want to deal with people that don’t respect the wood.”
Ian says it’s vital that the UK timber supply chain continues to work to ensure our forests are as sustainable and well-managed as possible, despite the challenges ahead.
He says: “People are very aware that if they don’t manage woodlands properly they don’t get good timber or biodiversity. But the levers and mechanisms to change that are very complex. And it’s not something any one business can do alone. We need the resources and infrastructure to make it happen.
“If you look at our French suppliers, they’re all passionate foresters as well and they all respect the resource. They derive their raw material from some of the best managed forests in the world, and the reason they can do this is that, 250 years ago, the French state decided that they would manage their woodlands properly, and have done so for decades.
“In Britain it’s so important to get society to think about trees and understand that the sound of a chainsaw in a well-managed wood is a good thing because you are part of a natural process; you’re managing and improving the woodland.
“That means, as an industry, we have to have more openness about where our products come from, and a growing understanding that we all have to be better in managing our forests, and the investment has to be put in place to do that. Otherwise, in 100 years, we’re not going to have enough homegrown timber.”