Short Rotation Plantations (SRPs) in the South West of England


The Rokwood project is aiming to help improve the market conditions for the increased uptake of woody energy crops (such as willow, poplar) grown in short rotation plantations (SRPs). The first 6 months of the project has been all about understanding what has gone before with each of the six clusters engaged in a lengthy analysis of the state of play of the SRP sector in their region.

In the South West (SW) of England the cluster includes the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), Crops for Energy Ltd and Dorset County Council. We are considering this element of the work as an unofficial public enquiry. The UK Government has been pushing the energy crops sector for over 20 years but these crops are still seen as a fringe activity by most farmers and there are very few SW examples of complete “field to furnace” supply chains. Instead, the partners have identified many schemes and projects that have failed to get off the ground for a variety of different reasons including:

    • Projects failing to gain planning permission
    • Failure to achieve project financing
    • Competition for land use
    • Lack of champions within organisation to push projects through
    • Poor quality of biomass feedstock
    • Transport logistics (e.g. small roads, transport disruption)
    • Lack of policy support

Short rotation forestryOne of the most important activities carried out in the first work package was a PESTLE analysis. This provides a framework to analyse the factors currently affecting the production and use of short rotation woody crops from several different perspectives, namely: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental. The factors can be at different levels (e.g. world, EU, national, regional, local) but those most relevant to the individual cluster regions carry the greatest importance.

In order to gain the most objective view of the current state of play of the sector in the SW we ran a workshop at the offices of the Centre for Sustainable Energy on 20th May 2013. This was attended by a number of key actors representing the public sector, research bodies, support organisations, and companies involved in biomass supply:

    • Alastair Shankland – Wiltshire Council
    • Dr Paul Adams – University of Bath
    • Paul Cottington –National Farmers Union
    • Corinna Woodall – Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
    • Mark Prior – Forestry Commission
    • David Lewis – Royal Agricultural University
    • Sam Whatmore – Forest Fuels Ltd
    • Paul Barker – Bristol City Council
    • Brian Gilder – Business West

The interactive workshop highlighted a total of 78 PESTLE factors. For each of the PESTLE categories the top five factors were selected and then ranked according to:

We have summarised some of the most important PESTLE factors for the SW cluster below. The letter in brackets indicates which of the PESTLE categories the factor was linked to.

    • There is a lack of proper financial incentives to reduce the up-front risk and financial burden of SRPs. The financial tipping point needs to be achieved (incentives and long term markets) so that growers will view SRPs as a viable and lucrative crop option. (E, L)
    • The Energy Crops Scheme (ECS) has failed to encourage large scale plantings of SRPs in the SW. The scheme is too bureaucratic and prescriptive requiring growers to have markets in place before planting takes place. The scheme is coming to an end and there is uncertainty whether there will be a successor. (P,L)
    • Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform – although it appears that SRPs will be covered under the proposed “greening” measures it is not certain if this will be prioritised by the UK Government. (P, L)
    • The lack of proper infrastructure (e.g. planting, harvesting and processing kit) and few, isolated growers means that there is little opportunity for improving economies of scale for SRPs without intervention. However, recent national and regional grant schemes have failed to support the purchase of energy crops machinery. Importing machinery from outside the region increases production costs. (E, T, L)
    • The average age of UK farmers is 59. Only 3% of farms are run by farmers under the age of 35. Younger farmers tend to be more entrepreneurial, more adaptable to change and prepared to consider longer term investments such as energy crops. (S)
    • SRPs often produce poorer grade woodchip e.g. larger particle size, higher moisture content when harvested and higher ash content. This is not suitable for many boilers without additional processing. (T)
    • There are no current financial incentives for planting SRPs for the benefits that they might provide in terms of biodiversity, flood defence and nitrate pollution control. A future ECS should be more integrated with Agri-environmental schemes and provide energy crop growers with annual payments that recognise the multifunctional benefits provided by these crops. (L, E, P)

The PESTLE analysis will inform much of the work that will follow in the Rokwood project. For instance in the second work package we will begin to draw up policy briefs that will be aiming to learn from the past mistakes and encourage more rapid uptake of these crops.

The energy crops sector is lacking a lobbying force and as a result in most cases our views are not heard. This has all too often led to poor policies that fail to stimulate planting and utilisation of SRPs. With the Rokwood project we have an exceptional opportunity to reverse this trend. Hence, we will be opening a dialogue with key policy makers to make sure that they are aware of the project and acknowledge that the project will deliver outputs that will be of interest to them. These figures will be invited to a workshop in January 2014 to exchange ideas about creating tailored policies and incentives to meet the PESTLE issues. The policy makers will also be shown around various sites giving them an opportunity to see the issues at first hand and discuss these with farmers.

There have been too many “false dawns” for the energy crops sector over the last 20 years. Our aim is that the Rokwood project will help develop the right policy framework that will enable the industry to finally achieve its full potential.