'I'm as fond of trees as anybody but it galls me to see people plant good land'

Pat Hennessey got a lot of strange looks when he decided to establish 38 hectares of Sitka spruce on his land back in 1991 – now he’s considered an industry pioneer, writes Claire Fox

Pat Hennessey measures the volume of a 28-year-old Sitka spruce on his land in Ballaghmore, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey
Pat Hennessey measures the volume of a 28-year-old Sitka spruce on his land in Ballaghmore, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

Beef farmer Pat Hennessey's decision to plant forestry on his farm in Laois was thought of as peculiar by his neighbours in 1991 - now almost 30 years on, he is hailed as a pioneer.

Pat says almost every farmer in his area over the years has followed suit in planting a portion of their land with forestry to complement their farming enterprise.

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Pat's farming story began in the '70s, when he worked for the Department of Agriculture on beef grading; he went on to work in the meat processing industry.

His wife Margaret later inherited a farm in Ballaghmore from her uncle and Pat decided to try his hand at farming full time. However, by the late '80s, he was becoming disillusioned with poor suckler prices and struggling to work the marginal land, which was also planted in malting barley.

"I was farming and trying my best to get the best results, but still was getting a pittance out of it. It was low-lying land with very heavy rushes," says the former Laois IFA chair.

"We tried draining it, we tried everything. From a management point of view, if you let dry cattle or sucklers on it, it would be wet again in June."

Pat Hennessy and his grandson Peter Hennessy checking reforested Sitka Spruce for pine weevil at Ballaghmore, Co. Laois.
Picture: Alf Harvey.
Pat Hennessy and his grandson Peter Hennessy checking reforested Sitka Spruce for pine weevil at Ballaghmore, Co. Laois. Picture: Alf Harvey.

It was a visit to beef and sheep farmer James Bennett's forestry plantation in the Slieve Blooms that attracted Pat to the idea of planting trees while continuing on with farming.

In 1991, and after conducting plenty of research, Pat made the decision to plant 38 hectares of his farm in Sitka spruce.

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While the tax-free premium and 100pc establishment grant of planting forestry appealed to Pat, his neighbours couldn't understand the concept and thought he had "gone mad".

"When I was talking to some of my neighbours, they said that I was off the wall and had lost the plot, and what would you have at the end of the day only bushes," he says.

"The attitude back then to forestry was similar to when I started farming first if a fella had a part-time job. Farmers would say 'oh sure he's not fit to farm, he's at nothing'.

"Whereas there's a hell of a different attitude to that now. Most people in my parish have some sort of off-farm income and have planted too."

Pat Hennessy with his Limousin X cattle at Ballaghmore, Co. Laois.
Picture: Alf Harvey.
Pat Hennessy with his Limousin X cattle at Ballaghmore, Co. Laois. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Before planting, Pat took the time to learn about the crop, and when the trees were rooted in the ground, he made a habit of walking the forest every day.

In 2006, he constructed a harvesting road to make thinning and forestry inspections easier. He advised farmers at the recent IFA Smart Farming Seminar in Portlaoise to take care of forestry as they would any other crop.

"Forestry is the one crop that farmers are slow to take care of," he says. "They'll look after their cattle and their wheat and their barley, but they're inclined to leave out the management of their tree crop.

"It's very important to get to know your trees and your forest because, to me, Sitka spruce is the Friesian cow of forestry and needs to be treated like it. You need to walk the forest regularly. If you don't know enough about it, employ a wood forestry consultant to guide you on the way."

Pat Hennessy with his two year old purebred Limousin bull 'Kenny' at Ballaghmore, Co. Laois.
Picture: Alf Harvey.
Pat Hennessy with his two year old purebred Limousin bull 'Kenny' at Ballaghmore, Co. Laois. Picture: Alf Harvey.

In 2006, Pat's first thinning took place, and he says the first person he had in to thin was in the market to clear the forest - he warned farmers to be wary of this as "the first thinning can make or break you".

"Timing is everything. Watch what is being taken out of your forest," he says.

"I've seen too many woods in the recent past which have been pilfered by people who didn't know what they were doing or knew damn well what they were doing.

"Be cautious if someone is offering you too much money for your thinning - be very careful. Find out who has had them before and how they've gotten on with them.

"Thinning is essential to increase your growth."

In 2010, Pat conducted a second thinning, and a third thinning happened in 2014. Instead of opting to clear-fell all the forest in one swoop, he clear-felled eight acres of it last year.

"I did this because instead of having one big pension pot at the end, I want to replant back more to ensure there's always forestry there for the next generation," he says.

"Now prices weren't as good as they could have been for us last year, but they have since gone up, and the demand for timber and carbon storage is only going up." Pat says average saw-logs returns were €56/tonne, pallets were €41/tonne, stakes €40/tonne, pulp €29/tonne and firewood €30/tonne, with the total returns he received for the eight-acre forest area he clear-felled amounting to over €70,000.

While at the time of planting, he admits he had "major regrets", he says the guaranteed income it has provided and solid return is very rewarding.

"Some people say forestry is the last resort and maybe it is, but why can't that be a good thing? You know going in to it that forestry is a better bet," he says.

"When certain grants and REPS (Rural Environment Protection Scheme) came in, I questioned if I had made a big mistake planting forestry, but whether cattle price is up or down, it's another source of income, whether it's a good or a bad year."

Pat feels the argument that Sitka spruce provides for no biodiversity is a tired one and soon believes that farmers will plant forestry on their farm, even if it's not for commercial reasons.

"You will hear a dawn chorus in the Sitka wood that is there until dinner time," he says. "The anti-forestry people say the whole floor is covered, yes it's covered for a couple of years while the canopy closes, but opens up again after the first thinning."

Pat adds that Sitka spruce allows you to get the most out of your land while producing a sustainable product.

He says while he is a forestry advocate, he doesn't like the idea of good land being planted in coniferous trees.

"I'm as fond of trees as anybody, but it galls me to see people planting good, free-draining land - that's my own opinion because we don't make good land like that, it doesn't come naturally."

Over the years, Pat has rented land to be able to continue farming his 47 suckler Limousin cross herd and gets great help from his grandson Peter (19), who is studying Agricultural Science in Waterford Institute of Technology. "I enjoy farming. I had tried to farm that land without forestry for about 15 years. It was great for growing trees and we've been able to watch them grow and so will the next generation.

"There should be trees on every farm - we shouldn't have this attitude of bulldozing everything."

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