Occasionally I find myself fortunate enough to attend an event that will remain in my memory for decades.
In this case it was an Irish Timber Growers Association field day where we visited 100ha of mixed woodland in Co Monaghan.
Without exception, the success of such outings is largely dependent on the interest and commitment of the owner and our host for the day, Jack Tenison of Lough Bawn, excelled himself in providing, throughout an educational and scenic walk, numerous points of interest where we could pause and discuss all the many aspects of private woodland management.
At each stop, Jack would outline past management and how he was dealing with ongoing issues, be they with conifers or broadleaves and having told us all we needed to know about the success or otherwise of each specific area, he then asked the all-important question "what would you do?"
This of course prompted a fascinating debate with different foresters and timber growers all giving their pound's worth based on their own experiences. One of the best features of the day was the chance to listen to some great communicators with huge experience of trees and timber production here in Ireland and abroad.
These included Bede Howell, former Royal Forestry Society President and tireless campaigner for excellence in UK forestry. His energy and commitment to all aspects of forestry and woodland management are legendary, but in particular I knew of him for his quest to find effective solutions to grey squirrel damage which has been even worse in the UK than here in Ireland.
More recently he translated that great book, Oak: Fine Timber in 100 years, from the original French and which can be obtained from Future Trees Trust at www.futuretrees.org.
Another speaker, whose lectures I have been fortunate to attend in the past was Dr Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.
Matthew is a gifted orator who has travelled widely and can talk confidently and knowledgeably on a vast range of subjects. There were many others who contributed to the day's proceedings, not least our host whose attention to detail throughout the walk ensured that no questions went unanswered.
We were left in no doubt as to what aspects of forestry paid financial dividends or otherwise, yet we were also reminded that some silvicultural practices are continued with because of environmental and historic importance.
While the property contains many splendid and ancient broadleaves with oak and beech dominating, their contribution to the financial well-being of the farm is limited and it is the spruce plantations that deliver the best return.
Some of us would consider this sad but the reality is that virtually all of our very limited supply of top-quality hardwood timber is exported to Britain and further afield with the rest going almost solely for firewood. Jack cited an instance where he sold some 200-year-old oak for €200 each.
Currently there is no adequate incentive to grow quality broadleaves and no recognition that planting and caring for them is a nationally important investment for future generations. But in the meantime, woodland owners have to live so it is little wonder that most concentrate on conifers.
We viewed some excellent young beech and oak stands, but the spruce was also impressive. The policy at Lough Bawn is to only thin once at around 15 years and Jack said that given the difficulty of sourcing the necessary machinery, it is more profitable for him to follow this low thinning regime.
I would certainly agree with him, for if your woodland is outside the main areas of forestry like Wicklow or the Slieve Blooms, transport costs can make regular thinning very costly.
The trees we viewed were still performing excellently and clearly illustrated how each wood requires its own specific management regime.
Forestry is defined as the science or practice of planting, managing and caring for forests. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Yet the more we know, the more we realise how little we know, for growing trees profitably arguably requires more knowledge, experience and understanding than most other farming enterprises.
The many field days organised by the ITGA provide a unique opportunity for members to meet and learn from talented foresters and woodland owners and share their own experiences. There is no better way to learn and if you own woodland, joining the ITGA and partaking of these educational outings is essential if you want to get the most out of your growing asset.
The use or rather misuse of herbicides is hitting the headlines these days and at our final stop we received some dire warnings on the potential long- term consequences of incorrect spraying.
I recall when Glyphosate first became available, it provided a wonderful means of clearing tillage land of scutch grass. As time passed, the price fell to the point where it was widely used and it seems we may now be suffering the consequences. We formerly believed that it became inactive once it reached the soil but in Britain, farmers have apparently found it lingering in the ground water — and when the water table rises, it can still be partially active.
There are other sprays now on the market, which like Glyphosate, are used to kill grass and weeds, often prior to taking a crop of hay or silage before reseeding. The fodder then passes through the animal and when the manure is used for horticulture, it can damage the crops it is meant to nourish. We need clarity on this issue as there is widespread disagreement regarding the long-term effects of many herbicides and pesticides. For now, I intend erring on the side of caution.