Forests cover 159m hectares or 37pc of Europe's land area. These forests are a major natural resource with multiple ecological, economic and social functions, and they provide a multitude of forest products.
Europe's forest-based industries employ between four and five million people, and support around 600,000 enterprises with a combined turnover of about €550bn. And the likelihood is that these output and employment figures are set to grow significantly as demand for wood increases.
Demand for solid wood in its known current forms is steadily increasing, as evidenced by timber prices remaining strong even during the worst periods of the current recession; and demand for new chemical uses of wood are expected to emerge and gain momentum.
It is anticipated that the highest growth rate will be in bioenergy as wood is to play a critical role in Europe's future renewable energy supply.
Increased demand is expected to lead to scarcity of supply, yet it is well known that there are significant reserves of unused wood in European forests. Most of this is 'locked' in forests that belong to private owners.
While historically Europe has a strong tradition of private forest ownership, this pattern is changing, with a new generation of forest owners adopting a more urban lifestyle and often ignoring the economic potential of their forestry assets.
The challenges in Ireland are similar but result from different root causes. Here, there is little tradition of private forest ownership, and forestry is an entirely new venture to the great majority of owners.
Accordingly, as a sector, private owners suffer from limited knowledge of forest management, and here too the demographic is changing as a majority of private owners are aged 65 or older.
Over the years, a number of forecasts for timber supply from our private forests have been prepared, but all suffer from the fundamental uncertainty regarding how owners themselves will behave and the extent to which they will be motivated to realise their forests' full potential.
A Europe-wide project is now underway which aims to mobilise forest owners, promote collaborative forest management, and ensure sustainable forest functions. Called SIMWOOD (Sustainable Innovative Mobilisation of Wood) and funded by the EU Framework Programme, it involves 28 partner organisations from 11 member states.
The project concentrates on five research themes, namely governance, ownership, management, forest functions, and harvesting, with case studies being carried out in 14 model regions with the help of local stakeholders.
Ireland's south and eastern region, from Meath to Cork, is one of the 14 model regions. The project will develop a profile containing information about the region's challenges and opportunities for woodland usage.
The information gathered as part of the analysis will be fed into the project's SIMWOOD Mobiliser which is designed to help unlock forest resources in a sustainable manner.
The key statistics of the chosen region in Ireland are a fairly accurate reflection of the country as a whole; therefore much of the information gathered should also be representative of the entire country.
The region comprises half the area of the country, and the area under forest at 348,233ha comes to 9pc of the region (as compared to the national total of 11pc). The area of private forestry is 163,669ha or 47pc of the total, which also equates to the national total proportion of private forest.
The Irish partners in this project are UCD, Forest Enterprises Ltd (FEL), and Irish Wood Producers Ltd. The duration is four years, running until 2017, and hopefully it will result in much valuable, and practicable, information. Further details are available at www.simwood-project.eu
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork.