Grow trees, not sheep, for better return from Welsh uplands

Upland areas of Wales can produce higher margins and create more employment from forestry than from sheep production, a study has found.

A report produced by SAC Consulting for forestry body Confor compared the economic output of 4,000ha of Welsh hill land producing timber with that from sheep production on the same area.

Annual output a hectare from forestry on the land studied was £83.72 before subsidy, compared to a deficit of £109.50 before subsidy for farming.

See also: Welsh livestock survey shows gap between best and average farms

Spending in the local economy in the forestry study area was twice that of the farming area, while forestry employment was 60% higher than farming.

Production of softwood forestry was a real economic opportunity for Welsh upland farmers, said Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall.

“It provides an opportunity for those farmers to successfully diversify their businesses, deliver more for the environment, create shelter belts for livestock, enhance biodiversity – and reduce reliance on public subsidy in the longer term,” he said.

His colleague Martin Bishop, Wales Manager for Confor, stressed that the report was not a call to blanket the hills with trees.

“Let’s be very clear: we do not want to plant trees on high-quality agricultural land. We want farmers to consider planting trees on marginal land which is not delivering as much as it should be.

The report reflected a strong timber market and recognised the relative benefits would narrow as timber prices became less buoyant, said Confor.

However, the long-term economic output of forestry was still predicted to be one-and-a-half times that of farming, while employment is estimated to be broadly the same – but relatively higher, as woodland creation tends to happen on poorer quality agricultural land, which supports very few jobs, said the organisation.

The study also found:

  • Forestry output has benefited from rising timber prices supported by biofuel demand while farm incomes have suffered rising costs and lower livestock prices lately
  • Forestry is expected to produce one-and-a-half times the economic output of current farming before subsidy as timber production evens out
  • Long-term forestry spending in the economy is expected to stabilise at 90% of current farming expenditure once timber production evens out
  • Once established, forestry trades at a surplus, farming at a loss, before subsidy
  • Forestry supports 60% more jobs than farming in the surveyed areas due to the higher physical and financial output of forestry activity
  • Forestry in future is expected to support employment close to current average levels employed in farming in the surveyed areas as timber output and restocking activity drops to a lower sustainable long term level as the forest approaches a “normalised” 40-year rotation
  • Forestry planting tends to be concentrated on poorer hill land where farming employment is likely to be lower than average.

Comparison of different land uses on 4,000 ha of Welsh hill land 


Forestry – “normalised 40-year rotation”

Agriculture – hill sheep farms (average 2012 and 2013) 

£ Total output




Less input costs                               








Grants and subsidies     




Source: Upland forestry WALES study – Welsh Analysis of Land-use Economics & Subsidies – by SAC Consulting for Confor.