While forests are not high maintenance, a little attention to detail and timely intervention in the early years of a plantation go a long way towards ensuring successful establishment.
If you haven't already done so, now is the time to get out there and take a good look at how your young trees are faring. Regular checks during the first three to four years, and rapid remedial action where necessary, will save a great deal of time and additional cost.
Ignoring this basic aspect is one of the main reasons why newly planted trees can struggle or fail completely.
GOOD WEED CONTROL
Lack of weeding is the biggest single killer of young planted trees. It is far cheaper to weed than to replace dead trees or, worse still, forego any grants and premiums. Weeded trees establish faster and need less maintenance overall. Weeds, such as grasses and many varieties of broadleaved weeds, can outgrow newly planted trees and smother them, stealing the moisture and nutrients from the soil around the tree and, in many cases, your trees will simply die of drought.
Make sure all your trees have a weed-free area of approximately one metre diameter for at least the first three years. For newly created woodland, one way of achieving this is by spot application of a herbicide approved for forestry use. There are a number of such herbicides on the market and they can be applied in liquid form by sprayer or weedwiper, or in granular form spread over the tree. Always follow the product label carefully when applying any pesticide, and wear protective clothing.
There are other ways of achieving a weed-free area around each tree, such as using mulching material or mulch mats, although these can prove expensive, even in relatively small woodlands. Cutting back grasses and weeds should be avoided, as it tends to encourage further weed growth and competition, especially early on in the growing season. Regular trampling around each tree is a better alternative.
CHECK FOR LOSSES
Some trees will succumb, so check for losses during each growing season and replace failures as necessary. A minimum 90pc survival must be achieved at year four, so it's a good idea to maintain close to 100pc stocking during the first couple of years after planting.
The simplest way to check is to take a few sample plots at random throughout the plantation – a circular plot with a radius of eight metres has an area of exactly 1/50th of a hectare, and a fully stocked circle will contain at least 50 conifers or 66 broadleaves, so at year four the minimum requirement will be 45 and 60 trees respectively. Averaging the numbers in the plots will give a good indication of the overall failure rate and the amount of beating up required.
As you walk through, especially in the first year after planting, check that the trees are firmly planted and upright. Any that appear loose and leaning over should be straightened and firmed in using the heel of your boot.
If your woodland is at risk from grazing livestock it needs to be well fenced. Even small numbers of livestock in young woodland over short periods of time cause major browsing damage, trampling of roots, and destruction of drains. Inspect your fences regularly and carry out necessary repairs to ensure it remains stock-proof.
Look out for any browsing damage from rabbits or hares. Where there is evidence of localised rabbit or hare damage, consider using tree shelters of the appropriate size that can protect trees and provide favourable conditions for tree growth. However, it is important if you are using tree shelters to check them regularly, and make sure they are kept upright and properly secured.
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org