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 UK: Timber import volumes fall at the start of 2024
[April 9, 2024]

Falls in softwood, hardwood and plywood imports account for a six per cent drop in volumes during January 2024, according to the latest TDUK statistics.

Timber import volumes started 2024 around six per cent lower than in January 2023, down by around 45,000m3. This reduction was made up of very different levels of performance in the first month of the year.

Softwood, hardwood and plywood imports were all lower than in January 2023, but particleboard, engineered wood, OSB and MDF products all saw imports increase slightly at the start of this year.

For softwoods, a nine per cent reduction in volumes from Sweden was the largest contributor to the 9.6% drop, with import values also 15% lower in January 2024 than they were in January 2023. This fall was caused by the volume decline, coupled with a 5.6% fall in the average price of a basket of softwood products, down from £256m3 to £241m3.

Hardwood imports experienced a 13.8% fall, largely due to tropical hardwood imports being down by around 3,000m3. In contrast, volumes of temperate hardwoods increased by two per cent, with imports from the USA, Croatia and Romania accounting for most of this growth. Overall plywood imports were also down six per cent, though hardwood plywood volumes rose 36%, mostly due to a near 18,000m3 increase from China.

Substantial increases in particleboard imports from Belgium, Portugal and Spain helped account for the sector¡¯s 3.4% growth, while OSB and MDF imports were up six per cent and 4.1% respectively. Finally, a 12.8% growth in engineered wood product import volumes rounds out the varied January 2024 results.

This month¡¯s TDUK statistics also examines the impact of Brexit on timber supplies as we pass the latest anniversary since the UK left the European Union.

Although timber volumes have experienced steep rises and falls since Brexit, as well as being adversely affected by a pandemic, wars and a sluggish economy, a simple examination of import volumes both before and after the 31 January 2020 exit date reveals that little has changed in terms of timber import figures. For softwoods, the proportion of timber arriving from Europe stands at 99% of the pre-Brexit figures, while for hardwoods, the percentage of trade with Europe has marginally increased from 66% in 2020 to 67% in 2023. For panel products, volumes imported from Europe have also changed by just one per cent.

The only sector that has seen a noticeable reduction in European imports is MDF, which has fallen from 97% to 86%. However, it is important to note that very keen prices on Brazilian and Chinese MDF are more likely to be the reason behind this change and, in fact, imports from many European suppliers have increased in real terms.

TDUK Head of Technical and Trade, Nick Boulton, said: ¡°It¡¯s always very difficult to accurately assess import and export trends at the start of a year, because with just one month¡¯s data available, small changes from last year can result in significant shifts in performance. A truer reflection of the sector¡¯s product performance will be visible towards the end of Q1, but the six per cent reduction we¡¯ve seen in January¡¯s figures does confirm the greater stability in the market when compared to the high increases and decreases experienced from 2020 to the end of 2022.

¡°We also need to bear in mind the latest housing start data, which indicates that while housing starts and completions held up well in 2021 and 2022, data for the full 2023 year is likely to be substantially lower once it is made available. Housing starts in England during Q4 2023, for example, were 51% below Q4 2022, on the back of a similar 52% reduction in Q3 2023 over Q3 2022. Given the importance of the newbuild housing sector to the timber industry, this is likely to indicate we can expect continuing challenges in the short term, and likely until after the coming General Election.

¡°However, despite the volatility of recent years and the subdued start to 2024, the longer-term trend of UK timber and panel product imports remains upward, and the government¡¯s renewed focus on timber as a core construction material suggests that the future continues to look brighter.¡±

Source: TDUK