I don't believe in New Year resolutions but with spring on the way and all my trees at the thinning stage, I am determined to maximise the returns from my woodland.
Having planted in 1995, I have been thinning the ash gradually for several years as it is one species that requires lots of light. In the areas where the trees are more advanced, I will be going in for the third time -- and it's remarkable the way they respond to being given a bit of space and room to breathe.
First thinning of ash and sycamore can be tedious work and, without grant aid, it would be a marginal exercise. With so many trees of small diameter to deal with, anything less than 10cm is hardly worth bothering with and best left on the forest floor to decay gradually and provide habitat for wildlife and add to overall biodiversity.
Anything above that size is valuable for processing into logs or selling on to others in the wood-fuel industry but now, with larger stems available, I need to improve the system for removing them from the woods.
My original method of manually loading a small quad-drawn trailer was fast, efficient and relatively cheap to set up, but it is no longer appropriate. Last year, I employed a contractor with an Alstor eight-wheel-drive mini forwarder to do the work. This year, I hope to do the same as many of the stems being felled are heavy and do require mechanical handling for removal and stacking at the forest roadside.
The best part, of course, is that, after 15 years of management, I now have trees of a decent height and girth to work with and can look forward to a steady supply of ever-larger logs. The sycamore were initially badly damaged by grey squirrels before I realised the need to control them. This damage made me wait until now to see how the trees would recover, if at all.
A high percentage of these sycamore are of no commercial value, having been ring barked badly with the leading stems destroyed, but there are just enough good trees remaining to warrant retaining them rather than clearfelling and replanting. This was the first intervention, as I was initially nervous about leaving only good trees which would perhaps attract further squirrel attacks.
This time my son and his helpers removed around 50pc of the crop. It remains to be seen if the squirrels will attack what is left and I will carry on trapping and shooting at every opportunity, especially as the greys are also causing damage to our oak and beech.
I intend continuing to thin and respace every three years or so from here on, especially now that some of the ash have reached a remarkable size and have, in many cases, outperformed the Sitka spruce.
My son and I are also considering increasing the size of our firewood processor as our current model, a Palax 70, while having served us well for many years, is unable to take timber of more than 27cm in diameter -- and we now require one that will take logs of up to 40cm.
We also need a log rack and grab to eliminate manual handling as much as possible and speed up the entire process. This exercise would cost around €40,000 but, despite buoyant log sales during the cold weather, we are still debating if we can justify the expense. With the rise in timber prices and so many new entrants into the wood-fuel business, we are wondering if perhaps we might be better off in the longer term cutting costs and selling the raw material to others to dry, process, market and deliver.
The Norway and Sitka spruce are also ready for first thinning. Two years ago I opened inspection paths, which have proved invaluable for assessing the crop. This is a relatively simple task and, once cut, the paths remain clear and are an essential aid to management -- and for deciding exactly what, when and where to thin.
With side branches removed to allow access, prospective buyers are able to properly see the crop, as are contractors who will be quoting for the job.
Before Christmas I secured the felling licence so all that is left is to agree a price and start work.
It's nice to look forward to the beginning of what will hopefully be a steady stream of income from the conifers.
My only regret is not planting more trees 15 years ago.