Biodiversity is a passion for Ailbhe Gerrard, and she has managed to find ways to make it pay on her beautiful farm on the shores of Lough Derg in Tipperary.
In the decade since taking over Brookfield Farm, beside her family home — after years living in Dublin and abroad — she has diversified her farm production to include organic sheep, crops, honey and farm tours as well as hardwood.
Ailbhe focuses her farm system to suit honey bees and other pollinators. That has involved sowing flower meadows and establishing 10 hectares of broadleaves, including a mature native forest; together, the meadows and the forestry make up over a third of her farm area.
Her woodlands comprise ash, oak, beech and sycamore. The sycamore in particular produces a lot of pollen.
“Biodiversity, recreation and landscape were important factors in my forest management choices but I also wants this woodland to create income,” she says.
“I am aware that it will take time for it to reach its full potential, but I believe active management is key in ensuring quality, therefore leading to profitability.”
With advice from Teagasc and financial support from the Department of Agriculture, Ailbhe has been able to improve her woodlands.
“We have carried out a number of thinning operations, which have provided us with firewood as a reliable market outlet for our small-diameter broadleaves,” she says.
“Removing the poorer-quality trees provided more growing space for the better-quality trees.
“As larger hardwood logs are gradually becoming available, we want to explore other opportunities and markets to add further value to our broadleaf woodlands.”
One of the many strings to Ailbhe’s bow is educating, and she will introduce Teagasc’s Hardwood Focus webinar on Thursday (see below).
She has been awarded a Nuffield Agricultural Scholarship, which funded a global agricultural tour and a report investigating how farmers around the world reach consumers directly.
Last year, she became a Farming for Nature ambassador and won the RDS Sustainable Farming, Sustainable Living Award. She is shortlisted for the 2020 Bord Bia National Organic Awards’ Business in the Community Award.
Her training in farming includes an MSc in sustainable development from University College London, and an MSc in organic farming from the Scottish Agricultural College (SRUC).
She has become a member of the Limerick-Tipperary Woodland Owners (LTWO), whose main objective is to maximise returns to forest owners through good forest management.
They organise forestry demonstration days and sawmill tours along with peer-to-peer learning, and facilitate smaller neighbouring forest owners to cluster up for operations.
Away from the forest, Ailbhe’s lamb is raised in a small organically certified flock and conscientiously reared. The lambs eat clover, carefully selected grazing grasses and lakeshore herbs, and some organic ration in winter.
“We also produce raw Irish honey, offering a hiveshare programme to customers,” she says. “Our bees are the native Irish black bee, distinct from the European bee.
“The hiveshare option is very popular, because we offer solutions to the unpredictability of beekeeping, but also a lovely connection to bees and our work with them.
“We organise open days and take visitors on farm tours to view the wildflower meadows, hives, lambs and crops as well as our broadleaf forestry."
Broadleaf species make up almost 29pc of our forest area, with most of our private broadleaf forests planted in the last 20 years.
As our young broadleaf resource develops, there is now a need and opportunity for the development of market outlets.
There are several very good reasons for doing so: reduce our reliance on imported hardwoods; encourage best practice; increase forest profitability and therefore sustainability; support the rural economy; lock carbon for the long-term into valuable hardwood products; and develop (bio-)diverse and productive broadleaf forests.
Could value markets be sought for the increasing sizes and volume of ‘small-diameter’ hardwood logs? Are there opportunities to add value to thinning from our developing young broadleaf forests and new native woodlands?
These are some of the questions that Teagasc’s one-hour webinar on Thursday at 11.30 will discuss.
It features presentations from a forestry adviser, a furniture maker and a sawmill manager. For details, see www.teagasc.ie/hardwoodfocus — where you should register in advance if you wish to attend.
Steven Meyen is a Teagasc forestry development officer based in Donegal