Farm Ireland

Saturday 23 March 2019

Private nursery sector reaping the rewards of long-term birch research

The Birch Improvement Programme is on course to achieve the highest possible category
The Birch Improvement Programme is on course to achieve the highest possible category
Steven Meyen

Steven Meyen

It can be very difficult to convince both the State and the public that it is a good idea to fund research - especially long-term forestry research. Would it not be much better to spend that money on filling potholes?

A very good example is the Birch Improvement Programme. Until recently, the availability of genetically-improved birch planting stock, well adapted to Irish conditions, has been limited.

In the past, birch was seen in Ireland as a tree of poor quality, poor growth and 'only' suitable for amenity and native woodland planting schemes, and was not grant-aided for timber production.

In 1998, Teagasc and COFORD initiated the Birch Improvement Programme in association with their university partners UCD and UCC.

This programme set out to develop a sustainable supply of improved birch seed and plant material for deployment in farm forestry.

This work culminated in the establishment of an indoor seed orchard in 2012, consisting of 90-plus tree selections, based on data collected from established progeny field trials.

John Kavanagh (left), nursery manager with None-So-Hardy, and Oliver Sheridan, forestry researcher with Teagasc, in the newly-built birch seed orchard. Photo: Teagasc
John Kavanagh (left), nursery manager with None-So-Hardy, and Oliver Sheridan, forestry researcher with Teagasc, in the newly-built birch seed orchard. Photo: Teagasc

As a result, this orchard has now achieved the improved designation 'qualified' under the Council Directive 1999/105/EC on the marketing of forest reproductive material. The Teagasc Improvement Programme is now working towards achieving the highest possible category under this directive 'tested'.

Oliver Sheridan, forestry researcher with Teagasc, explained the latest developments: "In 2014, the research reached a stage in the Birch Improvement Programme where there was material suitable for commercial exploitation.

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Partners were sought who were interested in developing a commercial supply of improved birch seed and plant material for the forestry sector through a licensing agreement.

"After a consultation process, None-So-Hardy Nurseries were selected as the successful candidate for the commercial exploitation."

The project is a good example showing research is essential. Without research, our lives would be so much the poorer. And I'm sure that research was carried out too to better fill those famous potholes!

Improved birch for sale this planting season

It pays dividends choosing good quality planting material when a new forest is established: you won't be able to produce top quality timber several decades later if you start out with saplings of poor genetic quality.

A case in point is the Teagasc Birch Improvement Programme and in conjunction with their commercial partners None-So-Hardy, improved birch planting stock is now available.

Two species of birch are native to Ireland - downy birch and silver birch. Native woodlands are an important part of Ireland's natural heritage and are home to a myriad of plant life, animals, birds, insects and invertebrates. According to the National Forest Inventory, native birch species - downy and silver - account for 5.9pc of all species or 23pc of the broadleaf component of forest area.

This equates roughly to a planting requirement of 1.8 million birch plants annually. In 2015, with the availability of improved planting material from the Teagasc Improvement programme, birch was entered on to the accepted tree species for afforestation.

None-So-Hardy Nurseries, with the support from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) under the Forest Genetic Resources Reproductive Material: Seed Stand and Seed Orchard Scheme, constructed a new purpose-built, high-sided polytunnel to house the birch plant material supplied to them by Teagasc.

The polytunnel was designed, constructed and erected by D-Plant Horticulture from Wexford (

None-So-Hardy already have a limited supply of birch plants from both the 'qualified' and 'selected' categories suitable for planting this season. Their new 'qualified' seed orchard should start producing seed in 2017, with the aim of supplying seed to satisfy the demand for the home market over the coming years.

Because of this long-term investment in research, birch is now a grant-aided species. It can be planted under Grant and Premium Category (GPC) 8 as a pure timber crop if 'qualified' or 'selected' seed is used or under GPCs 9 and 10 for the Native Woodland Scheme where 'source identified' seed is also allowed.

Nursery manager John Kavanagh at None-So-Hardy, said: "Land owners thinking of planting broadleaves for timber production should insist on plant material derived from the improvement programme where available. This will ensure they maximise on growth and quality timber."

None-So-Hardy is a privately owned Irish company based in Wicklow and Wexford specialising in the growing and supplying of plants to the Irish forestry market. Established in 1985 by John and Gillian McCarthy, the nursery today has a capacity of 25 million plants per year grown on over 200 hectares, making it the largest private nursery in the country.

Birch programmes throughout Europe

Until now, birch was not listed on the recommended schedule of timber species for forestry in Ireland as only 'source identified' material was available (see table above). This was due to the poor stem quality of birch evident around the country.

However, birch improvement programmes have been in place for many years in Scandinavian and eastern European countries and have contributed to the production of quality birch there.

In Finland, after 40 years of birch improvement, seed from second and third generation seed orchards have volume growth about 29pc higher.

Birch improvement programmes began in Ireland in 1998. Thanks to the foresight of the State to invest in long-term forestry research, the private nursery sector is now in a position to bring superior quality birch saplings to market in the 'selected' and even 'qualified' seed categories.

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