More Thoughts on the New Legislation Protecting African Blackwood

The thousands of readers of our article on the new protection legislation for African blackwood bears testament to the interest the piping community has in preserving the wood that is the source of our pleasure – but also to the radical impact it will have on the bagpipe making industry, writes the Editor.

The response from that industry has been one of gratitude for the information and resignation that things, post January 2nd, 2017, can never be the same again. They are correct in that analysis. The only way to deal with this change is to embrace it and move on. Appendix ll/ Annex B listing for dalbergia melanoxylon is here to stay and either get with it, re-align your business, or you will very quickly run up against a worldwide restriction on your sales.

I believe that with this re-alignment bagpipe firms in this country can take the new laws in their stride. A shift away from retail trade to more wholesale seems vital. Seldom will the individual in the world’s biggest market, North America, now order direct from manufacturers here. The export and import permit regime being imposed by CITES will deem that commercially inexpedient. We may find the odd enthusiast who is spending $8,000 on a full silver set who is prepared to get his own import licence from, say, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and pay the premium that goes with it, but how much easier just to go on line to a local dealer and get the same set that way?

What all the fuss is about….logs of African blackwood

And these dealers are the real winners in this sea change. They can expect new business from all those individuals who have hitherto gone direct to the UK for their pipes. Nevertheless, before they rush out and order that gold-plated Cadillac these dealers should bear in mind that they may also experience rises in wholesale prices as the makers seek to compensate themselves for the loss of lucrative retail trade.

The other winners will be manufacturers based in the US and Canada, firms such as the  Burley Bagpipe Company in British Columbia. These makers sell mainly to the home market with little overseas trade. Once they have paid their import dues and have the correct CITES paperwork for their raw wood they can deal freely within their own country without any special documentation on the part of themselves or their customers. Of course the expert makers we have in the UK turn out wonderful instruments and these are unlikely to lose their allure. Here is where the centuries-old bagpipe making tradition lies, as I am sure everyone will acknowledge.

The main losers will be shops in Scotland who sell to pipers in non-EU areas, shops such as those at the National Piping Centre and College of Piping.  They can still order pipes in from the customer’s chosen maker but then what? The customer must be told to apply for a CITES import licence in whatever country they live in and the shop itself must apply to Bristol for an export licence costing £59. It is just not going to happen is it? But remember, as far as UK makers and dealers are concerned, this legislation  only covers countries outwith the European Union. These shops are still free to trade unfettered by red tape within the EU. As they add up the losses that they will undoubtedly suffer in non-EU trade, they can also look positively at ways of boosting sales in the EU area, especially in countries such as Germany and Austria where there is a growing bagpipe market. Switzerland, however, which also has a healthy piping scene, is non-EU and is therefore subject to the same CITES strictures as North America. 

What of the bagpipe itself? I can foresee a growing trade in non-blackwood parts. Should not all blowsticks and stocks be of a synthetic substitute anyway? Such stocks would have only a slight effect on overall tone after all. With this change we would reduce the amount of blackwood in the bagpipe from 14 joints to seven – a significant reduction. I think more could be done too, to cast the synthetic material in such away that it closer resembles blackwood, much the same as has been done with aged ‘ivory’. 

 

What of other woods such as ebony and cocus? I don’t really know enough about either other than that ebony used to be cheaper but does not turn and bore as well as blackwood. Cocus wood I read has been harvested to extinction in its native Caribbean so will probably end up being covered by CITES legislation itself, though I couldn’t find it on their list of endangered species.

There may be a boost in sales of completely synthetic bagpipes and we already have companies such as Kilberry, David Naill, McCallum, and Ayrshire Bagpipes specialising in this area. However the latter’s African blackwood drone reeds will have to be certified for non-EU sales in the same way as any other product made of this wood so they will have a lot more paperwork to contend with as regards these reeds. Full bagpipes in synthetic materials should be acceptable for beginners and some playing in lower grade bands. At this level they sound perfectly adequate. But from middle to top I think most pipers will still prefer to sonorous quality of African blackwood. Perhaps there is a prejudice against ‘plastic pipes’ right enough. Some of us will remember the antipathy generated when the MacAllister/ Warnock polypenco chanter first hit the market. Now no one gives a plastic chanter a second thought and indeed most Grade 1 bands play them. No so in the solo world however where the top pipers demand full resonance and harmonic complexity that only an African blackwood chanter can give.

In all I believe the new legislation was inevitable. African source countries simply could not control poaching and illegal smuggling. This will of course continue, but by forcing manufacturers to use only African blackwood from sustainable sources we will have preserved this precious tree and its dark material for future generations to enjoy.