Micheál O’Donovan availed of a grant to plant over 1,000 native trees on an extremely steep 6ac section of his Cork farm. It was an arduous task but there are safety benefits as well as environmental ones, and he can stay connected to the land as sheep graze between the saplings
With record low planting rates, a bogged-down licensing system and rock-bottom farmer confidence, Ireland has a huge problem with forestry.
If it’s going to be solved, more farmers like Micheál O’Donovan will be needed.
Amid the crisis in our forestry sector, he dedicated 6ac of his farm in Coolbane near Ballinspittle, Co Cork to agroforestry, planting over 1,000 trees.
Agroforestry is a system that gives landowners the flexibility to graze livestock while growing trees for timber in the same field.
For Micheál, it was an option that ticked all the boxes when he sought ways to manage a number of extremely steep fields on his farm —and it wasn’t all about the money.
A part-time farmer, Micheál runs a calf-to-beef and contract-rearing enterprise and has found it difficult to incorporate the steep fields into the business.
“At my heart, I am a commercial farmer, but this part of the farm was difficult and the agroforestry scheme ticked a lot of boxes for me,” he says.
“It was going to make the farm safer; I’ve always been passionate about trees; and I could still stay connected with the land.”
One of the primary motivations for pushing ahead with the project was safety, Micheál explains. The dangers of working the extremely steep hills have always been on his and his wife Aoife’s mind.
“When I started driving a tractor down here — I was in my 30s and competent,” he says.
“Our boy is more passionate about farming than probably I ever was. When he gets to 16 and is able to drive a tractor, there’s a danger he’s going to be in parts of the farm where he shouldn’t be.
“From a security point of view at his age. I don’t want him thinking the tractor needs to go down here. So that was a big part of it.”
The sense of remaining ‘connected’ with the land was another important motivator for Micheál and was among the reasons he decided against a more commercial forest.
“If I just put commercial sitka spruce down here, you’re sort of drawing a line under it and it will kill off underneath, like giving nothing but a dead forest and that wasn’t for me,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of the dead forest. Whereas the native deciduous trees are something we’re passionate about.”
Having secured access to the Department of Agriculture’s agroforestry scheme and planning permission, Micheál planted the trees over the past winter.
Having initially thought about engaging a forestry company to carry out this work, he decided to take on the project himself with the help of friends and family. It was a major job.
The task sounds simple: drive a stake, drill a hole, plant your tree, cover with a tree protector and drive another stake. However, it had to be repeated a 1,000 times on an inclined site where there were areas a digger couldn’t access.
“I was never afraid of hard work, and it became a nearly became like a personal challenge,” Micheál says, adding, however, that there were times at the start where he felt “this is going to take years”.
As time went on, though, he says his technique improved.
“It’s a very steep site, and the digger wasn’t able to drive all the poles, so many had to be put in by hand,” he says.
“I took holidays during January because the weather was good and then evenings after work I was down with head torches digging holes into dark night.
“I had great help from friends and family that gave up weekends to help. It was almost like it was a neighbourhood effort.”
In the end, 600 oak, 200 downy birch and 200 white cherry trees were planted over the course of three months of hard work.
In terms of the financial reward for the effort, Micheál says that for him, the payback from the scheme versus his material costs were just like for like.
“I didn’t know it was going to cost me so much, but as I went through it, the fact that the grant money was there meant I was able to continue,” he says.
“I put in 1,000 trees at €1.50/tree that’s €1,500; then put the covers around them at €2.20 per cover, that’s €2,200. Then I had to put a stake in behind them, which cost €2.95 each, so that was another €3,000.
“Then just as I started, a new guideline came in that said there needed to be another stake at the front to protect the cover from an animal; that was another €2.
“By the time I had each unit had put together, it cost €9 so it was €9000 for my project. That’s just to buy the materials.”
Asked if he would recommend agroforestry to another farmer, Micheál says he would but adds that if they were doing it themselves, they would need to be “100pc committed to it”.
“If you’re any way half-hearted, you wouldn’t get through it,” he says. “You need to love what you do. You need to like planting trees and you’d want to want to do it. If it’s a purely financial decision, you won’t do it.”
The O’Donovans have since invested in a small flock of sheep that will graze that land under the trees, and so far Micheál has reported no damage to the plants.
“For me, this is reforestation. This is staying as a forest,” he says.
“I want the kids to be involved because I don’t want them to think in 20 years’ time, the right thing to do would be to take all these trees out.
“I want them to stay involved and see the trees stay and mature and be something long term. For me, I think my work is finished down here.”
What is agroforestry?
The agroforestry option of the Afforestation Scheme provides financial support to grow trees on land being used for farming.
The system gives land owners the flexibility to graze and even cut silage and hay while growing trees for timber in the same field.
How to qualify
To apply for the Afforestation Scheme you must be over 18 years of age and must hold a Personal Public Service Number.
Companies must provide their company registration details.
You must be the owner, leaseholder or joint manager of the land at the time of the application. Read the terms of the scheme to see the limited exemptions to this rule.
Agroforestry can involve pasture, grazing, silage and hay.
Other systems may be considered on a site-by-site basis, as long as the tree stocking rate is between 400-1000 trees per hectare, it is at least 0.5ha and at least 20m wide.
The trees will be thinned out in time, reducing numbers to 160-250 trees per hectare. This will allow enough light to filter through the canopy, enabling continued grass growth.
Trees must be protected against browsing animals with tree shelters or fencing.
When silage and hay are being produced, farmers must ensure that appropriate machinery is used to avoid damage to the trees.
Acceptable species include oak, sycamore and cherry, including 15pc fruit and nut trees.
Other species can also be considered on a site-by-site basis.
Ideally, sites should contain free-draining mineral soils and should have no requirement for additional drainage or additional fertiliser for tree growth.
However, additional nitrogen (up to 100kg/ha) may be required to promote grass growth for spring/summer grazing. This can be assessed on a site-by-site basis.
80pc of eligible costs can be funded. Grant rates and payment structure are paid on a fixed grant basis.
The afforestation grant is a fixed grant to cover the costs incurred in the establishment of a forest and paid exclusive of VAT. It is paid in two instalments.
The total grant available is €6,220.
Premiums will be paid for five years and will cover the cost of maintenance only and range from €645-660.