The thorny issue of forest certification provoked a lot of debate at the recent National Forest Owner Groups Conference which was held in Ballykisteen Hotel, Limerick Junction, Co Tipperary.
Interestingly, forest certification was not listed as one of the topics for discussion during the Teagasc-organised event.
However, it's a reflection of the growing awareness amongst forest owners of what many regard as a difficult issue, that certification dominated much of the exchanges at the conference.
It was apparent from the debate that took place that there is still much uncertainty and confusion about certification, not to mention a few myths that should be dispelled.
Situated as we are on the western fringe of Europe, there is a tendency for us to live in an isolated bubble.
While we are aware of most of what goes on in Britain, we tend not to notice as much what our more distant neighbours in the rest of Europe are up to.
As an example, there appears to be a widely held belief that because we have a regulated forest industry, certification should be unnecessary for timber produced in this country, or at the very least there should be a greatly simplified version available to Irish forest owners.
A 'certification-lite' regime is what many growers would like to see introduced. Such a regime would be overseen by the Forest Service, with a rubber stamp applied to Irish grown timber products on the basis that their production has been in accordance with Forest Service guidelines, and their harvest subject to the grant of a felling licence.
Of course if this were indeed the case, certification would be equally unnecessary throughout Europe.
While we might object to the level of red tape in Ireland, the burdens we have to live with are no greater than in any other country in the EU.
In many EU member states the regulations governing the forestry sector are rather more onerous than ours, and more rigorously enforced.
A country like the Netherlands, for example, with a rather smaller area of forest than our own, has such a comprehensive regulatory framework that their PEFC certification standard needs only to be about a quarter of the length of the Irish one.
In Finland, a country with many thousands of small private woodland owners, more than 95pc of the total forest estate is certified.
From Sweden to Latvia, Poland to Spain, tens of millions of hectares of forest are certified, all of them countries with highly developed forest industries.
In many, certification is already the norm rather than the exception, in others it is rapidly becoming so, even though the standards of forest management across the continent are every bit as good, or even better, than ours.
The reason for this is straightforward. At its simplest, certification is the difference between known and unknown wood and the market demands to know the wood it is purchasing.
By the term market, we mean the consumers of wood and wood-based products that comprise the greater proportion of overall demand.
The larger companies with comprehensive social responsibility policies in place, and the European governments and public sector bodies that have implemented green procurement policies, mostly require material that has been certified by either FSC or PEFC.
While it might be tempting to think that they should differentiate between 'low risk' timber produced in a regulated country like Ireland and the 'higher risk' material imported from the developing world, the fact is they don't.
While it is true that the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) does differentiate between low- and high-risk sources, demand for certified material in many instances exceeds supply.
The only way Ireland, with our tiny output in European terms, can compete is by playing the same game as everyone else.
Inevitably, the question of cost exercises forest owners' minds. Some of the discussion at the conference was in regard to the possible level of fees that a certification body will charge for carrying out the independent certification audit.
It is too early to say what the eventual charge will be, but it must be remembered that in a group scheme this cost is shared by all.
Whatever figures one may hear quoted – and at this stage it can be misleading to quote any figure at all – it must be noted that in the case of even a relatively small group certification scheme with say 100 members, the individual cost comes to just 1pc of the total.
Other issues which owners should be aware of were raised by Edward Wall of the Health and Safety Authority in his presentation to the conference.
While most landowners are aware of the duty of care they owe to the public when they enter or carry out work on their property, I wonder how many forest owners know the extent of their responsibilities to contractors under our existing health and safety legislation.
Prior to operations commencing it is a legal requirement to carry out a risk assessment. Contractors must be shown all hazards on the ground, and the owner should implement systems to ensure the right personnel react quickly in the event of an accident.
I suspect a good number of forest owners may neglect to do this prior to a thinning, for example.
For an owner applying to have his forest management assessed for certification, evidence that health and safety regulations have been complied with is the kind of thing an auditor will look for.
Certification is about having a management plan in place and good records kept on file, so that forest owners can demonstrate compliance with all the relevant laws and regulations.
The mere existence of a valid felling licence proving timber has been legally felled is only a small part of the overall picture of sustainable forest management.
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: email@example.com