Despite forests covering approximately a third of
the country, the Swiss forestry and timber sectors represent only a small part
of the country’s economic activity, contributing an average of 1% to the total
economic output. Reports generally identify costs related to Switzerland’s
exclusion from EU markets (plus a strong Swiss Franc due to not being a
member), as well as cheaper overall production costs in the EU countries and
elsewhere, as key factors for sales of timber and other wood products beyond its
borders not being competitive and challenging.
Although Switzerland imports and exports a roughly equal amount of timber and products made from wood, the value of imports (3.4%) are nearly three times higher than exports (1.2%), 90% of these imports and exports are with the EU. As it is, the forestry sector has at times, struggled to be viable at a purely economic level, while continuing to be supported by federal funding for the legally required 30% forest cover for maintaining their widespread protective functions.
The productive output of Sawmills has therefore been challenged by this
international context, although with governmental and societal responses
to climate change increasing, as well as building regulation changes,
the broader situation has been increasingly favourable, and a wave of
timber construction – as noted elsewhere – has been changing conditions
in construction in recent years. As elsewhere in central Europe, the
challenges of Waldsturben 2.0 (forest dieback); increased storms, rising
summer temperatures, insect infestations, diseases, and other impacts
are also becoming consequential for the forestry sector. After serious
storm damage in early 2018, large amounts of damaged windthrow – equal
to a quarter of the annual forest stand harvest – became available and
entered the market, partially accounting for the highest wood harvest in
recent years. That total 2019 wood harvest came to 5.2 million m3 up from 4.67 million m3 the previous year. Divided into sectors, the figure comprises just under 2.7 million m3 of sawlogs and veneer logs, 589.000 m3 industrial roundwood, plus nearly 2 million m3 wood fuel.
Out of a total 1.2 million
hectares of forested land, productive forest accounts for approximately 1.12
million hectares. Ownership is split between commercial, state, community, and
small individual or family plots. Although the majority of the forests are
privately owned by 246,000 companies, compared to public ownership of 3340
stands, public ownership is much more extensive – at 898,700 ha to 373, 400 ha
(figures from the 2018). Public forestry accounts for over two thirds (71%) of
Swiss Forestry Statistics (FS) Graphic – FSO 2020
Regionally, the scale of the forestry and timber sector varies significantly across the country. The largest share of productive forest proportionate to total forests is across the Swiss Plateau (90%), the Jura, (80%) and the Pre-Alps (70%), compared to much lower amounts in the Central (34%) and Southern Alps (21%), where their principal function is as protective forests. On the Swiss Plateau growing stocks of spruce have been in decline – as a direct consequence to the warmer and drier climate – and although overall broadleaf trees have been increasing, the most frequent species, fir, beech, and spruce, have also been in retreat.
The regional character of the forestry and timber sector is at its most pronounced in central Switzerland, with the highest levels of companies, networks, and economic value. According to a report by the Institute for Business and Regional Economics (IBR) produced on behalf of the main timber promotional organisation, the Lignum Holzwirtschaft Zentralschweiz, the sector employs 16,000 people and generates around 4.5% of economic value of the region. Along with central Switzerland, the Western Jura, north-western Basel and surrounding cantons are other areas where forestry and timber are well represented.
According to the most recent 2015 Forest Report (English language precis and download link to the report), there were just over 15,300 wood industry companies employing over 90,000 people in 2011. Many of the businesses were small or medium sized, including carpenters, saw-mills, joiners and furniture makers. Over 90% of work is in the timber industries rather than the forestry sector.
Across the complete building
sector, the proportion of timber use has been around 14% for the last few
years. The largest proportion is in agricultural buildings (40%), while the
lowest is in leisure, sport, and recreation (10%). However, new factors are
impacting timber in construction, including the new fire regulations, which
took legal effect in 2015. As a result, larger multi-storey housing and office
buildings are increasingly being commissioned and built, this also being a
consequence to the belated spread of engineered timber – CLT, glulam and other
glue-laminated timber materials into the sector. Between 2011 and 2017 the
level of timber in use in new build single-family houses rose from 12.6% to
13.5%, and from 26.1% to 33.8% for extensions and conversions. In multiple
dwelling units, the increases over the same period were from 6% to 7.2% for new
builds, and from 26.1% to 28.5% for extensions and conversions. The total
timber share in load-bearing structures for multiple dwellings reached 14.5% in
However, as Swiss manufacturing capacity, and specifically the capacity of sawmills, with low investment in the required production technology, is limited – there is almost no CLT production inside Switzerland – these materials are primarily imported from Austria and Germany, although a limited shift is underway. At present, Schilliger, the Swiss-French company, is the only Swiss producer of CLT even if there are some indications that this looks set to change. Government led campaigns, which have emerged from the Wood Action Plan (2017 – 2020) and aimed at the general public, WOODVETIA, have sought to highlight and develop the indigenous wood harvesting potential used inside the country by an efficient Swiss forestry sector.
Repeatedly, the prospect of combining the Swiss reputation for its technical expertise and culture of innovation – following the watch-making example – with the timber sector has been highlighted in recent years. To some extent this is being realised both in sections of timber engineering being led by Swiss players, and in the crossover digital technologies with much talk of Industry 4.0. This is much less the case at the forestry materials source end of the sector, where the lack of available research funding and budgets is often underlined. Likewise, the potential of increasing wood harvest increments is emphasised, alongside closed chains from forest through to the general public facing portals, with the climate change and sustainability arguments always well to the fore.