Farm Ireland

Sunday 23 July 2017

We can't see wood for trees when it comes to thinnings

There must be a better use for hardwood thinnings
There must be a better use for hardwood thinnings
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

When viewing hardwood thinnings stacked ready for haulage at roadside, how often have you heard the statement "It's only fit for firewood".

This is usually meant as a derogatory statement, suggesting that if the timber being viewed was of a higher quality, then who knows what wonderful uses it could be put to. So can you name one such use?

Of course you can't, for apart from chipping for biomass which is the same end use as if it were for logs for the fire, there is no other single economically viable purpose that this timber can be put to.

Most of us are making whatever we can of our thinnings by harvesting them, selling them at roadside or drying them, cutting them in to suitably sized logs, bagging them and finally delivering them to customers throughout Ireland.

This is the best we can come up with. It saddens me to look at straight, well-grown 4m-long stems of oak and beech, perhaps 10 to 15cm in diameter, and think that we do not have the means to utilise them better.

Occasionally we find well-made laminated products using very small sections of hardwoods, and a lot has been written about their potential value but as yet, nothing has emerged that will put a few extra quid in the woodland owner's pocket.

My new-found hobby of wood turning suggests that I could make wonderful bowls and egg cups. But how many of these can the market place absorb? I can just visualise in 50 years' time, someone opening a cupboard in my kitchen and a thousand egg cups will fall out, testimony to yet another failed woodcraft venture.

Having seen the recent DAFM awards for funding for forestry projects, I found it astonishing that they had such large amounts of cash at their disposal for studies into aspects of forestry, some of which seem a long way from the core needs of the industry.

If they can provide €1.3m for producing an "Irish Land Use Emission and Sequestration Support Tool", whatever that is, how come they can only provide a miserly €80k for investigating the potential of "Commercialisation of Irish Cross-Laminated Timber"?

That is the very stuff I referred to above that is ending up as firewood and is crying out for well-funded research. The terminology used in describing these projects is arcane in the extreme and one has to wonder who writes this stuff and more importantly, who decides what projects receive the most funding.

If at this point you are confused, then try to read the following extract from the description regarding the 'Land Use Emission' project and I quote. "The project brings together the expertise of researchers working in a range of disciplines, including the economics of agriculture and forestry, environmental science, forestry research, spatial analysis and computer science. The integrated modelling platform will be capable of being used as a decision support tool for policy makers, analysing the trade-offs between different strategic choices, which could arise from domestic or international policy options".

Why not write it more simply? Why confuse us with terms like "spatial analysis", "decision support tool" and "integrated modelling platform"?

Now I know that the wonderful experts within the DAFM will be laughing at my ignorance but I find trying to work out what they actually mean by all this complicated verbiage hurts my head. I do understand, however, that they are paying almost €200k for someone to research further a project called SHINE or "Supporting Hen Harrier in Novel Environments".

I thought we had spent years and probably used up some tonnes of paper on the subject of the hen harrier, while creating further gases into the atmosphere by arguing endlessly on the pros and cons of various systems of forestry management to ensure this remarkable bird can avoid extinction. How long will this go on?

Surely by now it is clear that the hen harrier can prosper in the vicinity of mixed-age woodland and we should just get on with both protecting it from vandals and observing its progress, and its undoubted ability to adapt to different environments. This hardly warrants a further €200k.

Just consider the benefits that would accrue to the broadleaf sector if more funding was provided to further assist second and third thinning, or the replacement of poorly established sites with species better suited to their location. But of course it won't happen. It's just too sensible.

Do we need to spend €195k to find answers?

One project that does warrant the €195k allocated to it is the confusingly named "Exploitation and Realisation of Thinnings from Hardwood" or EARTH.

This aims to find more lucrative end-use applications for the timber that is currently used for firewood.

In an ideal world, it should answer the needs of what I was referring to at the beginning of this piece, but it is difficult to see how it will produce anything worthwhile when it contains aspirations such as the following and I again quote: "This project aims to support the development of the forest-based sector in Ireland by developing knowledge of the wood quality of Irish hardwood thinnings and identifying possible end-use applications. This will be achieved by undertaking a study to quantify the available dimensions from first and second thinnings."

This is simply daft. Any competent firewood producer such as my son could, except for coming up with new ways of laminating timber, easily provide all the remaining answers to the above in about five minutes of writing.

After spending over 10 years thinning broadleaves and purchasing them from other farmers, he knows the dimensions and quality backwards and could recite them in his sleep. He would appreciate €195k.

Indo Farming