Farm Ireland

Sunday 21 April 2019

Combining forestry with other land uses is well worth exploring

Agro-Forestry and Forestry for Fibre initiatives are the way forward for landowners

Fresh Thinking: The Draft Forestry Programme 2014-2020 makes provision for Agro-Forestry and Forestry for Fibre schemes.
Fresh Thinking: The Draft Forestry Programme 2014-2020 makes provision for Agro-Forestry and Forestry for Fibre schemes.
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

There has been some lively discussion since the launch of the Draft Forestry Programme 2014-2020. Surprisingly, many of the comments have been negative and because of this and having welcomed the programme initially, I felt I should study it in further detail.

In an ideal world we would of course all wish for greater funding for afforestation, but despite the recent improvements in our economy, we still have vast national debts to repay and given these circumstances, I honestly believe that this programme is both innovative and practical.

It is, of course, far easier to criticise than to praise.

Hard hitting, aggressive articles sell newspapers but those of us who have the privilege of having our opinions appear in print also have a responsibility to try to give a balanced and honest viewpoint when writing.

Forestry has come of age in Ireland. The huge interest now being shown in what is in most cases an 'add on' farm enterprise is proof that landowners are beginning to understand the multiple benefits that trees can deliver.

The negative perception of forestry that was common in the 1980s and '90s has given way to an awareness that in most cases, and especially where marginal land is involved, forestry pays and pays handsomely. Not only does it provide additional income, but it also places a far lighter demand on the landowners time and labour than is the case with conventional farming.

What I especially liked about the new programme was the fact that its authors have opened their minds to the many alternatives and options that exist within the broad description of forestry.

They appear to have listened to people who know about these alternatives and not just to those who formerly held sway and could see nothing beyond blanket planting of Sitka spruce.

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Sitka and Norway spruce are of course wonderful trees and will remain the mainstay of our national forest industry. This fact is fully acknowledged in the new programme and support has been maintained for those wishing to plant those species.

The aim to plant 30pc broadleaves remains and while this is not appropriate on many soil types, a large number of farmers, to the surprise of the 'conifers only' lobby, have opted to plant in excess of this figure.

A few weeks ago Ian Shortt of Teagasc brought a group of UCD forestry students to visit my woods in Meath. This has become something of an annual event and one I always look forward to. It really is inspiring to meet these young and enthusiastic foresters of the future and hear their thoughts on how our industry should progress.

The difference in their attitude compared with that of their counterparts 30 years ago reflects the progress and change in thinking associated with forestry in Ireland in general.

We measured the growth rates of the trees at a number of locations and I was surprised to find that the vast majority of my ash had reached 18/19m in height in the same number of years. Now this is as good as spruce any day and highlights the tragedy that we cannot, for the present, plant this native species while the threat of Chalara disease remains.

Having carried out further measurements, I found a small number of the oak and beech, along with many of the sycamore and alder, had also reached this height and we clearly need to seriously address the issue of provenance when planting for the future.

I then read in the new programme the following welcome sentence: "The proposed scheme will also encourage the use of improved and adapted planting stock from within Ireland.

"This may be developed further during the programme period and could include, for example, higher premium\grant rates for using improved planting stock and a lower level of premium\grant rate for using ordinary planting material."

Now that is more like it. It acknowledges the poor provenance of much of the broadleaf stock used to date and shows a willingness to change.

The two new schemes within the programme that really caught my attention are the Agro-Forestry and Forestry for Fibre schemes. These are excellent initiatives and are deserving of success. Grant aiding the growing of trees for fuel acknowledges the huge demand for wood chip and logs for firewood and also the need to help farmers become self-sufficient and perhaps also supply local wood fuel firms.

Agro-Forestry is very popular in France and there is no reason why it should not succeed here in Ireland.

Surprisingly, the details of the Agro-Forestry scheme confine it to grazing systems only, whereas, in other countries tillage is carried between the trees and a large variety of crops are grown. The benefits of combining trees with crops or livestock are obvious and the growth rates achieved far exceed those that are normal within standard plantations.

Also, livestock have been proven to thrive better in these situations and benefit from the shelter of the trees and the overall warmer climate this shelter provides.

The production of hay and silage are also permitted but one negative aspect of such schemes has been retained. That is the requirement to keep all planted land in forestry for the foreseeable future.

This is not clever thinking and if farmers are to be encouraged to partake of these schemes then a defined period of say 20 years should have been included.

Another possibility would have been to allow farmers with planted land to revert to Agro-Forestry following clearfell and thereby allow crops and livestock to share the area with trees.

Indo Farming