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Sunday 4 December 2016

Going batty for willow can make Ireland A driving force

Plant it and make most of growing global demands for cricket bats

Joe Barry

Published 22/03/2011 | 11:37

Woodland owners should cash in on Ireland's World Cup successes - such as this month's three-wicket win over England, inspired by the fastest World Cup century from Kevin O'Brien - by growing willow to export to cricket-mad nations for bat manufacturing
Woodland owners should cash in on Ireland's World Cup successes - such as this month's three-wicket win over England, inspired by the fastest World Cup century from Kevin O'Brien - by growing willow to export to cricket-mad nations for bat manufacturing
Woodland owners should cash in on Ireland's World Cup successes - such as this month's three-wicket win over England, inspired by the fastest World Cup century from Kevin O'Brien - by growing willow to export to cricket-mad nations for bat manufacturing

Ireland's victory over England in the Cricket World Cup must rank as one of our greatest sporting achievements ever. It certainly cheered us all up and, judging by the letters to the newspapers, it dramatically lifted the spirits of Irishmen and women living and working abroad and those of us at home.

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Cricket used to be widely enjoyed in rural Ireland and was played on summer evenings on village greens throughout the country, by people of all ages and from all walks of life. That was, of course, before the infamous GAA ban on anyone taking part in games that were perceived as being British.

Thank goodness that particular piece of bigotry has since been put to bed and we can now enjoy all sports regardless of their perceived origin.

When you consider our small population and the relatively tiny numbers of sportsmen and women we have to choose from compared to other countries such as France and England, our successes down the years at international level have been quite spectacular. We compete successfully against the world's best in rugby, along with many other sports, and now our cricketers are showing their mettle.

But is anyone here growing the willow required for the manufacture of cricket bats? We are soon going to be self-sufficient in ash for hurley making and, given our damp climate and rich soil, we can surely also grow willow for cricket bat manufacture.

I ran the idea past Neil Foulkes, who featured in this column recently, and he replied with the encouraging statistic that there are more than a billion people in India alone and 90pc of them are cricket mad. Add to that list Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia and other countries throughout the world where cricket is almost a national sport and the picture starts to become clear.

The potential for growing willow and making cricket bats must be huge and anyone with suitable land should at least examine the possibilities.

Up to now we have focused on growing willow for biomass but with a bit of horticultural expertise and lots of hands-on management, good willow for the cricket bat industry can undoubtedly be grown here.

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Neil sent me some pictures of willow he had grown on his farm near Ballinamore. The growth rates are remarkable and it appears that it can reach a saleable size in less than 20 years.

If you log onto www.cricketbatwillow.com you will get information on how one firm in England supplies, grows and manufactures bats from Salix alba 'caerulea', or English cricket bat willow. This is considered to be the best variety by the cricket industry, the original was first discovered in Norfolk around 1700.

To properly establish willow, ground preparation, fencing and subsequent weeding and grass cutting or spraying are essential. During growth, side shoots must be rubbed off carefully as they appear and, like any tree, the object is to grow a clean, straight stem to produce the maximum usable material.

As with all silviculture, the first five years are the most important to ensure the trees are given the best start possible. When harvested, depending on the length of clean stem, numerous sections can then be used from the one tree. I wondered if ash could be used in cricket bats but perhaps there is some subtle difference in flexibility. It might be worth investigating but then if willow can reach usable size in such a short time, why wait for ash?

The most common areas used for planting willow in Britain are along watercourses and low-lying, often disused water meadows. Soil types naturally have a varied effect on the growth and quality of the trees and good-quality soil over clay, with a high water table, is ideal.

Pat Farrelly, of Farrelly Bros, who is well known in the willow biomass industry here, told me that his company has had enquiries from India regarding the possibility of sourcing Irish-grown willow for cricket bat manufacturing.

But be warned. It is not just a matter of getting bundles of willow stems and sticking them in the ground and waiting to reap your rewards. There are things such as watermark disease, honey fungus, goat moth and even woodworm to be countered alongside damage from rabbits, hares, sheep, cattle and man to protect against.

However, being ever an optimist I intend to give it a go. Wouldn't it be great if there was a grant available!

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