Visit to BSW Timber Group Sawmill
Report by Chris Allan, Alba Trees Plc
Petersmuir 20th October 2016
We were welcomed to BSW Petersmuir by Sandy Brownlie, former Group chairman, Alex Brownlie, Group Commercial Director, who delivered a presentation on the history of the company and Mill Manager, Ian Lyall.
The forerunner of BSW was established in 1848 and the company currently operates four mills in Scotland (Fort William, Petersmuir, Boat of Garten and Dalbeattie), three in England (Carlisle, Newbridge-on-Wye and Southampton) and one in Latvia. On 1st September 2015, BSW acquired Tilhill Forestry – a forest management and timber harvesting business operating across the UK.
Operating over 2 ha near Haddington in East Lothian, Petersmuir is a specialist mill that processes larger and longer logs that are not suitable for other mills (with a length capacity of 1.8-8.0m). Established in the late 1950s, the mill was purchased by A & R Brownlie Ltd in 1982 and currently has a production capacity of 22,000m3.
The mill produces a range of materials including construction timber, fencing and landscaping supplies, agricultural purlins and pallet wood. Although the log supply is primarily Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, Larch and Scots Pine are also sawn. In recent years the mill has had to look beyond its traditional buying areas going as far as Western Argyll and the Lake District for logs. Ian stated that close relationships with harvesting managers were essential to source the timber that the mill requires.
Alex and Ian commented upon the changing markets meaning that the mill is now largely concerned with the production of agricultural purlins rather than pit props and ship-yard timber.
Regulations surrounding structural grade construction products mean that the mill invests a considerable amount of time on the pre-grading of logs by means of an acoustic hammer tool to reduce the volumes of timber going through the system only to fail at the final grading stage. This measures the speed of sound through wood to provide a direct measure of stiffness. The strength grading machine operates on the basis of stiffness related to strength. Therefore, by pre-grading logs on stiffness, BSW can assess which are most suitable for cutting structural grade products early in the process.
We were shown around the log yard, de-barker and butt reducer as well as the greenmill, development mill and strength grader where we were introduced to staff who talked us through the various processes in great detail.
What was apparent was that much of the work is still done manually by skilled operators, in contrast to some of the more automated facilities elsewhere in the country. Many of the staff are long-serving employees of the company with a considerable degree of skill, knowledge and expertise that the company are keen to retain and share across the workforce and between business areas.
After the tour, we returned to the meeting room for a general question and answer session about the visit, followed by a group discussion on timber certification and the potential for increasing quantities of alternative species in the coming years. Alex advised that BSW puts a great deal into the documentation required but agreed that there was a commercial advantage to FSC certification in site of the problems and significant costs associated. Alex expressed concerns that decent saw logs appear to be getting used for biomass wood chip given the subsidies available and that global imports from places such as the Americas were a cause for concern.
James Hepburne Scott raised the issue of alternative species across the sector and highlighted that the range of species used must change to adapt to future climate change and to alleviate pest and disease risk. He was keen that the Society take an active role in developing this agenda. A lively discussion took place where various viewpoints were expressed. Jeremy Thompson noted that, as a forester advising landowners, he has no confidence in alternative species given a lack of evidence of how they perform in comparison to more familiar species including Sitka Spruce. However, other members of the group – including James Ogilvie (FC) – noted that research is available. The point was raised that the Forestry Commission and other bodies need to be taking a more proactive role in promoting alternative species. Alex Brownlie noted that mills could adapt fairly easily to various new species if sufficient volumes became available, but that the major obstacle from his point of view is the end-user and that a culture change would be required. For example, Larch is known to be stronger than Spruce but the construction trade is put-off utilising Larch due to its colour. It was noted by Tom Christian (RBGE) that “there will never be another Sitka” and that all areas of the industry need to wake up to that fact. Tom also highlighted that conversations surrounding alternative species concentrate on conifers rather than productive broadleaves. However, others commented that the construction trade may just end up looking to imported Spruce to get the timber it wants. Alex commented that Western Hemlock is processed at BSW’s Southampton mill and that it has good form, but variable quality geographically. Western Red Cedar is little understood in terms of milling and structural use.
James ended the discussion by stating that a RSFS event will be held on 5 October 2017 at Alba Trees in East Lothian to bring together the nursery, forest management and milling trades as well as industry experts including Scott Wilson to discuss the current state and future of alternative species.