Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 November 2018

Growing broadleaves remains a challenge for Irish forest owners

Sitka Spruce has been a magnificent servant of Irish forestry. Without it we wouldn't have the vibrant industry we know today -- no other species would have been capable of giving us the forest cover we have in such a short space of time

Moreover, it's a remarkably forgiving species, admirably suited to our climate and thriving on a wide variety of soils.

As a nation we have become very proficient at growing it.

But of course we can't live on bread alone and a healthy forest estate must have variety, both at micro and macro level. It is to everyone's credit that species diversity has become part of the lexicon of Irish forestry, to the point where annual broadleaf planting has exceeded 30pc of the total for some years -- in addition to the greater numbers of species such as Norway Spruce and Douglas Fir being included in the mix.

However, this has, in part, led to a number of problems.

All of us are familiar with the sight of some pretty indifferent, and in some cases frankly appalling, examples of broadleaves established at some point over the last 20 years.

At worst, some of these stands may scarcely produce firewood when they come to maturity, let alone timber for processing.

This is a serious worry for their owners, especially as the premium is coming to an end on the older areas, and I, for one, don't have an answer.

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A number of factors are at play here. For one thing, reared on a diet of Sitka Spruce, few foresters in Ireland can claim to be real experts on broadleaf silviculture and most of us have been learning as we go along. Inevitably we have had to learn a lot from our mistakes.

For example, there are a lot of instances of broadleaf species planted on unsuitable sites.

However, this is far from the whole story because, with the loss of most of our native woodland resource in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a corresponding loss to the gene pool.

For the most part, varieties of native and naturalised broadleaves that had adapted to Irish conditions over centuries were lost, for which we are now paying the price.

With broadleaf planting starting in earnest in the mid-1990s. a huge amount of seed and planting stock was imported from Britain and the Continent and it proved to be pot luck whether these provenances thrived in Irish conditions or not.

In May, the North's minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O'Neill, and our own Minister, Shane McEntee, jointly launched the Future Trees Trust (FTT) at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Loughgall, Co Armagh.

FTT was previously known as the British and Irish Hardwood Improvement Programme, which was founded in 1991 and was a collaboration between many of Britain and Ireland's foremost tree scientists and forestry practitioners.

It is a charity dedicated to the improvement of broadleaved trees throughout both jurisdictions and with a great degree of cross-border co-operation.

FTT has trial sites across Britain and Ireland where they test offspring (both seeds and cuttings) from carefully selected superior parent trees of seven tree species.

Researchers monitor their development over many years. By careful selection and rigorous testing, they ensure that only the best progeny or cuttings produce seed that will grow into excellent broadleaf trees. The seven species currently being trialled and improved are ash, birch, cherry, oak, sweet chestnut, sycamore and walnut.


In other words, those species for which there is high demand and which are capable of producing significant financial returns from high quality stems.

The team working at FTT reads like a Who's Who of British and Irish foresters, including our own John Fennessy, of the Department of Agriculture, Gerry Douglas, of Teagasc, and Dr Michael Carey, former Coillte head of operations.

Inevitably as a charitable trust, FTT is short of funds and relies entirely on grants and donations, not to mention the time given free of charge by most of the personnel involved in the research.

Furthermore, their work has reached a crucial stage as they are in need of about 30 more test orchards where improved seeds that FTT has produced can be further tested to determine how they perform in different locations and climates.

If any readers feel they can help in FTT's vital work in some way, Tim Rowland will be pleased to hear from you and he can be contacted at

Further information on the programme is also available on the FTT website --

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email:

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