Darragh McCullough: 'Forestry will be a big part of farming's future but placing all our bets on Sitka spruce is pure folly'

Unable to see the wood for the trees: the folly of monocultures has been amplified in terms of forestry
Unable to see the wood for the trees: the folly of monocultures has been amplified in terms of forestry
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

For the past couple of months I've been looking at my options for getting into forestry. For years, I'd been guilty of dismissing it as an enterprise that was only of interest to farmers on marginal land.

But with a return at least equivalent to that of a rental house, I prefer the idea of investing in land rather than bricks and mortar. For a start, as a farmer you should have a head start on the next chap investing in forestry, in that farmers have a sense of the pitfalls regarding land, growing crops and getting them harvested.

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But I also like the idea of investing in a renewable product that should have a very positive impact on the environment. There's even the possibility that there could be environmental credits associated with forestry in years to come given the amount of carbon that it sequesters and the value of that to the Irish economy.

At first glance, Sitka spruce is the no-brainer for planting since it gives a faster and bigger return on investment than any other species. With a turn around of less than 30 years in cases where the crop has been well managed and planted on decent soils, it is the closest thing to a crossbred Friesian cow in terms of ease of management and profitability in the sector.

It's ironic that the best performing land for Sitka is not the most highly valued land in Ireland.

Tillage or dairy land is too dry with too high a pH to maximise yield from this species. Hence why the concentration of spruce plantations is so concentrated in areas with high rainfall and wet land.

But maybe the real irony is that areas such as Leitrim that are crying out for some kind of viable farming activity have become so hostile to a crop that has proven its worth economically for those invested in it.

The arguments against Sitka in terms of the impact of a monoculture on diversity and closing in formerly wide-open spaces are valid.

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But as I've been learning from my Teagasc field trips over the last number of months, the halcyon days of 100pc Sitka may well be behind us.

Ash dieback has given the entire forestry pause for thought. I remember filming for Ear to the Ground in Ballinamore in Leitrim where one of the first hotspots of the disease was recorded in 2012. The approach by the government back then was to try to eradicate the disease by sending teams of forestry contractors to clear-fell any infected forest and remove ash trees along the roads within a mile of site.

It was a huge and costly effort. I remember standing in the pouring rain - remember, that's why Leitrim is so good for forestry - looking at these huge machines munching their way through tree after tree, and Department of Agriculture officials all over the place.

In hindsight, it was all entirely pointless. The genie had been out of the bottle across Europe for years beforehand, with the Danes first recognising the problem a full seven years before we realised what was going on here.

Ash dieback is now endemic across the country and the Department have rightly completely changed their approach to dealing with the disease. But farmers that invested in ash plantations 20 years ago with dreams of tonnes of hurley butts and fat profits are now left with thousands of acres of trees that in many cases are fit for nothing more than firewood.

Only 1pc to 2pc of trees have proven themselves resistant to the rot and it sounds like it will take a decade to ramp up both the research and volumes of healthy strains required to make ash commercially viable again.

The whole episode has highlighted the vulnerability of monoculture forestry. Farming has developed into a system largely based on monocultures, but growers are becoming more and more wary of reliance on single species year after year. It creates a reliance on a narrow spectrum of chemical inputs and nature has a way of fighting back by constantly evolving either weeds or pests that are resistant to farmers' best efforts.

The folly of monocultures is only amplified in the case of forestry where nobody really knows what new challenges will be facing growers during the lifetime of the crop. Who knows what bugs, diseases or weather we are going to have in 20 and 40 years' time?

The emergence of the Spruce beetle in the UK should be the canary in the mine for Sitka growers.

The notion that a Department official with a clipboard is going to be able to hold back all the beetles hiding in every crevice of spruce coming into this country over the coming years is the height of silliness.

The alternative? More mixed species planting, which of course will require more management, and reduce returns from forestry in the short term. But it's still a sector that I'd like a piece of.

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