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Greek Hardwood Utilisation: What techniques could be transfered to UK markets?


Aims and objectives

In common with many lowland foresters, I have dream of managing hectares of high quality, valuable oak. The reality is poor quality, multi-stemmed regrowth, fit only for firewood and barely covering the costs of harvesting and extraction. We have become grant dependent but with the English forestry strategy moving away from support for timber production, woodland owners and woodusing businesses need to find ways to increase returns from the sale of their primary product.

I was intrigued, therefore, by a statistic from the Greek forestry industry, where the use of locallyproduced sawn timber is nearly 3 times the per capita consumption of the UK. Anyone who is familiar with Greek forests will know that their timber is no better than ours. Many forests were devastated during World War II and much of the re-growth is of poor quality, aggravated for many years by the attentions of goats. My suggestion of studying Greek hardwood utilisation caused some raised eyebrows. Why, I was asked, did I not study somewhere like Germany or France, where they were Doing it Right? The answer is simple: our generation will not achieve timber quality such we see in the best Northern European forests. We need to understand how to make the best of what we’ve got.

The following is a whistlestop tour through some of the main findings of the study. The full text is available on CD, free from: Rural Progress, Duchy College, Stoke Climsland PL17 8PB. Tel 01579 372112. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. My thanks to Rural Progress, DEFRA, The European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund, The Silvanus Trust, Woodland Heritage and the ICF for their support

Caveats

Greece is largely a cash economy so that masking real, as against declared, turnover is simplicity in itself. (Last year, a staggering 60% of tax returns nationally declared income below the threshold at which tax is payable!) The question we must ask is not, how much profit are the Greeks making from this ? But rather, could any of these methods be applied, or adapted in my forest, business, or rural community?

The Greek Forestry Industry

The Greek Forestry Industry Forestry and woodland make up nearly 50% of the total land area of Greece. Much is scrub, however, and only 15% is true high forest, mostly on the northern and western mainland, with broadleaves comprising 49.7% of the total standing volume. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and wet winters. However, in the main afforested areas, snowfall can be extensive and last for several months.

Transport links are poor. On a micro level, the forest road network, whilst fairly extensive, involves long haulage distances, whilst on a macro level, there is only one arterial motorway. This has encouraged the timber industry to think in terms of local production and supply, and small hardwood mills, supplying the immediate locality are still common.

Use of timber in construction

Construction techniques in Greece are different from those in the UK because of earthquake risk. Most new buildings are reinforced concrete and a large amount of rough hardwood is used as shuttering in the initial construction process.

However, local hardwood is not used only as a disposable item, it is of primary importance in the second stage of new build. Imported softwood is used for mass produced items, but there is a strong market for local traditional hardwood products, particularly where planning regulations, similar to those in UK conservation areas, demand traditional building techniques.

Wooden floors are a feature, and, particularly striking, are wooden ceilings. These are expensive, but are maintenance free. Wooden boards are nailed to the joists and the gaps between them hidden with beading. The basic design creates attractive stripes but variations on this involve additional beading at right angles, or at 45º angles, to create a geometric chequered or diamond pattern. The most expensive versions also include carved oak ceiling roses produced by local craftsmen.

These wooden ceilings are usually made of oak, but a striking modern variation is done with poplar. This timber is favoured by modern architects because it readily takes a dye, enabling the creation of red, blue, or green ceilings, which are most attractive.

Local Marketing

In the UK, ill-informed environmental awareness has lead to a worrying number of people with the mind-set, “save a tree, buy plastic”. So far, increasing environmental awareness in Greece has not lead to a reduction in the consumption of timber products.

Most importantly perhaps, this is because Greeks have faith in their regulatory authority. Felling regulations, similar to those in the UK, are perceived by Greeks as being firmly enforced. Contrast this with results of a Forestry Commission survey recently published in the UK, where 61% of adults in the UK believed forest cover to be decreasing.

So why is this mind set beneficial to the timber industry? First, Greeks still think of wood when making purchasing decisions, and businesses exploit its positive image. Bakeries which still use wood-fired ovens market their bread as a natural product. Traditional furniture, fencing, and building techniques are seen in a positive light. In the UK, farm shops and farmers’ markets have capitalised on the public’s sense of community to encourage local product purchasing. In Greece, this same sense of community extends to local timber products. Local sourcing of products is seen as being good for the community and good for the consumer.

Symbiotic grouping of business and cooperative working
Co-operative working is the norm, not only within formal cutting-utilisation clusters, but also in an informal way. Thus cutting gangs can select timber in the woodland for specialist uses within the cooperative. Aleppo pine (pinus halepensis), for example, has a tendency to lose its leading shoot, resulting in curved timbers, and a skilled cutting gang can select out such stems for use in boat-building.

Multi-skilling within the wood-working/using community is also important. Forestry in Greece is confined largely to the up-lands, where winter weather is significantly more severe than in the UK. Forestry contractors make use of winter down time, by producing various cheap wooden products, for example, bread boards, branded with a rudimentary motif, for sale to the domestic tourist market.

The dominance of larger companies in the UK over the last few decades has encouraged the view that specialisation is good. But specialisation and isolation have led to wasting materials: specialist cutting is seen as a distraction from volume production, even though a sale to a cabinet-maker, or wood-turner may add more value to our raw product. Specialised workers may gain advantage through added expertise, but can lose money in down time.

British supermarkets have long been aware of the advantages of the “one stop shop” and have capitalised on this to the detriment of smaller producers and suppliers. The Greek economy, in contrast, is dominated by small businesses and it is striking to see complementary, or even competing businesses grouped within a small geographical area. For example, firewood merchants and fireplace/ barbecue shops are often side by side; joiners and cabinet-makers work in the same area of town, effectively creating a furniture warehouse – a local version of IKEA – consumers have choice and, knowing they will probably be able to make a purchase, are more likely to visit.

The role of the Local Authority in encouraging local purchasing

The koinoitita is a rural local authority and plays an important role in encouraging local purchasing, putting consumers in touch with local suppliers. In the case of firewood the koinoitita can even arrange delivery. This is an Agenda 21 issue and is something that could be taken up by local authorities in the UK. Whilst district councils have a local purchasing policy, they could have double the impact if they acted as an information hub for local products as well. If Local Authorities are for legal reasons, unable to perform this role, Enterprise Agencies, which are partly funded for business promotion work, would be well placed to step in.

Links between firewood consumption and sawn timber use

Official statistics give various figures for firewood consumption in Greece, but even at the most conservative estimate, Greek per capita firewood consumption vastly exceeds that in the UK (0.12m3/person/yr in Greece, compared with 0.025m3/person/yr in the UK).

The advantages for the forestry industry of high firewood consumption are clear. With generally poor quality timber stocks, a buoyant market for the considerable volume of waste produce puts less pressure on the profit margins of the sawlog industry. Prices are high, between €80-100/m3, delivered-in (in terms of purchasing power, €1 in Greece is broadly equivalent to £1 Sterling). This price is for green, freshly-cut timber. The “cubic metre” is the raw measurement, with no allowance for air in the stack, and so is considerably less than a tonne.

There are several reasons for the high consumption of firewood, and related products. Firstly, usage of charcoal in a climate more favorable to outdoor eating than that in the UK; more importantly, and with clear possibilities of transferability to the UK market, is the use of significant quantities of fuelwood by wood-fired bakeries, which are common in the countryside and by no means unknown in town. They sell a premium product and advertise it as such. The bread is incomparably much better than that available in the UK. We have had the Campaign for Real Ale; with the British becoming increasingly more food aware, there seems to be a real opportunity for a Campaign for Real Bread.

Firewood sales are an important component of a wood-based business. It is sold in various ways. Over the ’phone, as in the UK, where customers order a load to be delivered; through the local authority, and also through retail sites: different grades of firewood, cut to various lengths and stacked, are on display and consumers have a real choice. (These sites also sell charcoal.) The use of retail sites for firewood sales encourages the consumer to “think wood”. Compare this with the UK, where consumers would be more likely to pick up a bag of coal from a garage.

Conclusions

The public image of wood products in Greece is much more positive than in the UK. This is a public relations issue not only for the producers, but for the regulators, such as the Forestry Commission. The public in the UK are aware of planning regulations – why are they not aware of felling regulations ? Small producers need to look at creating symbiotic relationships with other businesses, being aware of the value-adding potential of specialist markets and the possibilities for making more productive use of down time by broadening their skills. This is an issue for training providers and their funders, who tend to ignore the training needs of small businesses trying to rise above subsistence level.

Charlotte Dawson

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