Forestry: Twenty years a-growing
It is now 20 years since I first planted trees under what was then a new and innovative afforestation scheme. After much lengthy planning and research, I eventually planted approximately 150ac. Happily, this proved to be an excellent investment.
My only regret is that the final premium payment arrived last January. One can get very used to the comfort of a (almost) tax free sum arriving annually, even if most of it got reinvested in maintaining and improving the woods and infrastructure for their long-term benefit.
The decision to plant mostly broadleaves here in Meath made the task of making the woodland earn its keep more urgent.
Had I planted conifers as I did elsewhere, I would be in to at least second thinning by now and enjoying a faster return on the investment.
Earning money from broadleaves is far more challenging and the argument still rages as to the inadequacy of a premium that ceases at least 50 years before one has final crop trees to harvest.
Now that the length of premium has been reduced to 15 years, the drawbacks to planting broadleaves are even greater.
Fortunately, for the sake of the landscape if for nothing else, there are many farmers like me who simply like broadleaves and who appreciate the less immediate benefits of growing them.
They are an investment in the future and we must be grateful to those far seeing landowners of the past who have left us a splendid legacy of oak, beech, lime and others that now grace our countryside.
We must not forget also the substantial increase in value of a well-landscaped farm and the endless pleasure of ever changing seasonal colours.
Also of real importance is the enjoyment of woodland walks throughout the year and the undoubted health benefits these bestow.
The environmental benefits have also been immense as has the shelter that the woods provide for the pastures and livestock.
But you cannot eat a view or dine on wood so apart from the forest fungi and the occasional meal of woodcock and pheasant, cash still has to be earned and the woods must pay their way.
A decade ago it was virtually impossible to obtain dry, well-seasoned, wood fuel.
When we carried out our first thinning of the ash, we found we had thousands of small diameter, freshly-cut lengths of hardwood timber that no one was interested in, not even when offered for free.
It seemed obvious that not only should they not be wasted but that there just might be a commercial opportunity in drying, processing and packing them in bags for sale.
It was a slow learning curv, but my son now has a viable wood fuel business that provides him with a livelihood and which justifies the expenditure on managing the woods for their long term advantage.
That has been one of our initiatives to making our woods pay, but many other farm foresters - in addition to the normal sale of thinnings - have invested in farm tourism which is proving hugely popular.
In the early 1990s, the new afforestation scheme was designed to make planting trees easy and financially attractive. There were many regulation, but nothing to compare with the difficulties that the current schemes present.
Many farmers and consultants are driven close to despair with the present regime. This applies especially to land that is of marginal use for mainstream agriculture. Thousands of hectares of rushy, difficult soils that are ideal for growing trees are lying wasted as a result.
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