Darwin downs forests early

February's hurricane wreaked havoc on plantations, felling 1pc of stocks, but help is at hand for beleaguered owners

Thomas Cosby stands where about 300 evergreen trees were floored by Storm Darwin atStradbally Estate, Co. Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey/HR Photo.
Thomas Cosby stands where about 300 evergreen trees were floored by Storm Darwin atStradbally Estate, Co. Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey/HR Photo.
About 300 evergreen trees were floored by Storm Darwin at Stradbally Estate, Co. Laois. Picture: Alf Harvey/hrphoto.ie
BLOWN APART: Hurricane Darwin left devastation in its wake after hitting the Irish coast, but the Windblow Taskforce is working to support foresters through a very difficult period of recovery

William Merrivale

During the afternoon of Wednesday, February 12 harvesting contractors carrying out a first thinning of seven acres of Sitka spruce belonging to Pat Crowe near Inagh, Co Clare, had to cut a path to the nearest boundary as rapidly as possible, abandon their machinery and make good their escape over a boundary wall.

Around them, as what came to be called Hurricane Darwin gathered strength, the crop was being flattened by the wind.

"It looked exactly like a field of corn blown over in the wind," said Mr Crowe.

"In no time at all, not a single tree in the entire block of seven acres was left standing. The contractors were lucky to get out in time.

"They were fortunate, too, that the damage to their harvesting and forwarding machines was minimal."

Mr Crowe did not waste time. He contacted the Forest Service in Wexford and his local inspector the same day and was advised that as his existing felling licence was for a thinning he would need to re-apply for a licence to clear-fell the site.

This he did immediately, submitting the application on the Friday following the storm. Just a week later, on Friday, February 21, he received the licence. This proves that in the wake of the storm damage, the Forest Service is reacting quickly to the exceptional circumstances and granting licences allowing owners to start dealing with windblown areas without delay.

While the overall damage at national level is not as bad as first feared, with initial estimates putting the windblown area at less than 1pc of the total forest estate, and the volume of timber at about half of the annual harvest, many individual owners have suffered significantly.

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Stakeholders in the forestry sector have come together under the chairmanship of the Minister of State for Forestry, Tom Hayes, to co-ordinate a response to this storm damage.

This Windblow Taskforce, chaired by Minister Tom Hayes and comprising representatives from Irish Forest and Forest Products Association (IFFPA), Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA), Coillte, IFA and the Forest Service, is currently endeavouring to:

1. Estimate the area, volume and extent of the damage nationally;

2. Make recommendations to address the many issues that will arise in relation to the storm;

3. Make recommendations for the orderly removal of windblown timber from damaged forests;

For forest owners who have experienced windblow the most important advice is not to rush into decisions but to make a step-by-step plan to minimise risk and maximise the salvage value of the damaged crop.

Most forests, despite being blown, can have considerable timber value, and provided the root ball is still attached the timber should not deteriorate significantly for a number of months. The taskforce has prepared a guidance note for owners which includes the following steps to assist owners in planning and harvesting:

1. Think safety first; a windblown forest is a dangerous place. Only qualified and insured people should be permitted access.

All parties have legal obligations when carrying out forestry operations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1989.

2. If the plantation is insured for windblow, contact the insurance company immediately. The insurance company will assign an assessor to assess the damage.

3. Get independent advice from a Teagasc forestry adviser or from a qualified forestry professional, and also other qualified professionals such as insurance advisors, taxation experts, etc.

4. Assess the area, timber volume and likely value of the windblow. In addition assess the adjacent areas.

Taking account of factors such as age, area and risk of windblow.

A decision will need to be made whether or not it is best to retain the adjoining area and allow it to grow on, or to harvest this area as well.

Where a forest is partially windblown, it is important that a forestry professional assesses the remaining standing trees for stability.

Where the forester deems that such trees are unstable, these should be included in the felling licence application.

5. Apply for a felling licence to fell/harvest the windblown timber and potentially any adjacent trees that may be at further risk of windblow.

Mark the application 'Storm Damage' to ensure it is prioritised by the Forest Service.

If there is an existing felling licence for the land, specify the licence number in the new application as this has to be cancelled before a new licence can be issued.

Ensure that the application is signed by the landowner and where clear-felling is proposed, that details of the species being replanted are provided.

6. Consider access to the forest and specifically the windblown area and,l if necessary, apply for a roading grant from the Forest Service.

Applications should be submitted before the end of March 2014 and can be made through a forester on the approved list.

7. Under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989 there is an obligation on landowners to gather information about site hazards and to produce a site risk assessment, together with a site hazards map.

8. Market the windblown timber and get professional advice on current prices. Joining with a group of forest owners will provide scale and efficiency and may also reduce costs, thereby maximising salvage value.

9. Have a strong timber sales contract in place to protect the interests of all parties.

A forestry professional should be able to provide such a contract or consult the Template Master Tree Sales Agreement produced by the ITGA.

10. Control the movement of timber from your site using a strong timber sales dispatch system for security and accountability.

A forestry professional will provide this or utilise the ITGA model timber sales dispatch system.

11. Supervise and monitor the sale and harvesting operations.

12. Close off the sale and keep records. Make sure all timber is accounted and paid for, and that proper records are maintained.

13. Plan your harvest in conjunction with subsequent replanting, a legal obligation after felling.

A badly planned and implemented harvesting operation may increase the replanting costs.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: william@cjandco.net

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