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Thursday 8 December 2016

Fun for all at Alternative Woodlands Ventures day

Joe Barry

Published 12/07/2011 | 05:00

Stradbally Hall in Co Laois is perhaps best known as the site of the popular music and arts festival the Electric Picnic, which attracts huge crowds each year to this fine old estate.

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The Irish Timber Growers' Association held a field day there recently, with the theme for the day being "Alternative Woodland Ventures". From a woodland owner's perspective, hosting a pop concert is about as alternative as it gets and when you add in a paintball venture, a 1949 steam train with a mile of narrow gauge track through the woods and a hydrodynamic electricity generator known more famously as an Archimedes screw, you have an idea as to how we spent the day.

It was nice to see our Minister of State for Forestry, Shane McEntee, attending for the earlier part of the event, although I am not sure how much the various ventures at Stradbally added to his store of knowledge on current forestry issues.

Stradbally Hall is, of course, also the site of the annual steam rally where lovers of old machinery gather to view and handle ancient masterpieces of engineering and amid the smoke and grease, bargain over pieces of antique tractors and other farm equipment. Volunteers from the local steam museum completed the installation of the narrow gauge railway through the woods in 1982. Powered by a steam locomotive formerly used by Bord na Mona to haul turf through the bogs, this novel railway is open to the public on all bank holiday weekends throughout the summer.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the field day was a visit to the site of the Archimedes screw, which supplies all Stradbally's requirements for electricity, with excess production sold into the national grid.

Our host, Thomas Cosby, explained the functioning of this unique system, which works on the principles of a design supposedly first invented by Archimedes to pump water by hand from a lower to a higher level around 200BC.

Reverse

The modern version works in reverse by using the flow of the water to turn the screw and thereby power the generator. The shape of the screw itself is basically that of a large augur and its advantage over conventional hydropowered turbines is that less head is required and it can function efficiently in more modest rivers with less fall than, for example, a mill race.

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Mr Cosby estimated that the time required to fully recoup the cost of the equipment and its installation was around 11 years, but much depends on the amount of rain that falls and its influence on the height of the river. The cost is considerably lower than that of many other types of hydropower units and landowners with rivers flowing through their land might well consider examining the viability of such a system, which, unlike wind turbines, can deliver power consistently throughout the year.

Heavy rain arrived around midday and while no doubt welcome as a boost for electricity generation, it unfortunately meant we had to cancel our visit to the oak woodlands that had been badly damaged by grey squirrels over the years. The population of greys has declined there recently, despite being present in large numbers in the 1990s, and some red squirrels have since re-established themselves in the woods. This turnaround has also occurred in some other estates such as Birr Castle but, as yet, no one knows precisely why. The increased numbers of pine martens and buzzards is sometimes given as an explanation, but, whatever the cause, any reduction in the number of greys is most welcome.

We finished our outing with a ride through the woods on the steam railway, where some venerable and usually stern timber growers became small boys again, laughing and reliving their youth as we rocked along to the clatter of iron and steel and many happy hoots from the steam whistle. It was certainly a field day with a difference.

Entries are now being taken for this year's RDS-Forest Service Irish Forestry Awards. Entry is free and there is a prize fund of €7,000 to be won along with silver medals for the winners of the two main categories.

The farm forestry section is open to farmers who own a minimum of 5ha of woodland while the bio-diverse section has the same area requirement but is open to all.

For details, contact Paul Farrelly, RDS, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, call 01 240 7215, email forestry@rds.ie or go to www.rds.ie/agriculture

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