During the late 1970s and early 1980s, shortly before private planting took off in earnest, and prior to the formation of Coillte in 1988, we could not find markets for nearly half our timber.
The annual available volume was reduced to about 740,000 cubic metres, but the Forest Service, which in those days was the manager of the State forest as well as the regulatory authority, could only sell 420,000 cubic metres.
This is less than the annual capacity of any one of our four largest mills today!
Forestry is, of course, a long term investment and foresters tend to think in generational terms, rather than months or just a few years.
True enough, a rotation of Sitka spruce is typically somewhat longer than the standard 25-year definition of a generation, and the results of research carried out today won't be fully understood for some time to come.
However, in many areas the industry can move remarkably quickly. In his introduction to the recent National Forestry Conference, the secretary of the Wood Marketing Federation, Donal Magner, pointed out that few amongst us would have believed just a few years ago that high rise buildings of up to 20 storeys would be constructed entirely of timber.
This is now happening. And in those dark times a little more than 30 years ago no-one would have guessed that our sawmills would be processing more than 3,000,000 cubic metres of timber per annum – and still not be working to capacity.
For much of the 20th century, we exported nearly 80pc to customers throughout Europe, the Middle East, and even India. The forestry sector now has an annual value of €2.2bn and employs about 16,000 people, mostly in rural areas. It is a remarkable success story.
However it is still a young industry with much to be learned and it would be dangerous indeed to sit on our laurels.
With the title 'What shall we do with the timber? – opportunities for Irish wood and wood products,' the theme of the conference was on quality and innovation, from seed sown in the nursery right through the forest chain to finished product.
With ever-increasing numbers of private owners adding their harvest to the overall supply the conference was timely.
This was noted by the Minister of State for Agriculture, Tom Hayes, who said that the forestry sector could not afford to stand still.
"Innovation and the development of new markets and products are the lifeblood of every sector," he said.
The Minister also noted that afforestation is crucial to the long term sustainability of the industry, and advised that he would be seeking to resolve the issues associated with the hen harrier areas.
The Minister's comments are also timely. Despite the growth, we are still well behind the targets set in the 1996 report 'Growing for the Future' which forecast output at 10,000,000 cubic metres per annum, and preferably 20-50pc more than this by 2030.
This was based on a target forest cover of 17pc, and a planting programme of 20,000ha per annum.
We have fallen a long way short of this target, due to many competing land use options, and the hen harrier looms large in this debate.
According to Mike Harvey, a director of Maelor Nurseries at Bronington, on the Welsh border, wood is increasingly recognised as 'the material' of the 21st Century. He also highlighted the fact that the use of sustainably produced wood for offsetting carbon intensive activities can continue indefinitely.
Major research in the development of tree breeding techniques is taking place worldwide as tree breeders seek to establish plantations based on the best available genetic gains for future timber production.
It is predicted that demand for wood products will increase dramatically over the next 20 years. Globally the wood harvest is predicted to rise from 3.79bn cubic metres in 2010 to 5.11bn by 2030.
It follows that breeding to improve the genetic stock, for increased growth rates, timber quality and disease resistance, is a vital component of our inter-related industry.
A number of the factors controlling wood quality are genetic, and therefore heritable. These include density, fineness of branching, angle of branching, grain angle and stem form.
Breeding programmes including the identification of "plus" trees, cloning, and vegetative propagation are underway.
This research has resulted in significant increases in vigour and improvements in stem form.
The value chain starts with improved nursery stock. The next step is to ensure good silvicultural practice in the forest, which can add value and increase profitability by a significant margin.
Both the timing and intensity of thinning has a profound effect on stem quality, diameter and volume increment, and rotation length.
Dr Niall Farrelly, research forester with Teagasc, described the results obtained to date from two trials being undertaken in Roscommon and Longford, both planted in 1995, on surface water gley and brown earth soils respectively.
Both trials have involved four different treatments: no thin, light (grade B), medium (grade C), and heavy (grade D) thinning, removing 20pc, 32pc and 39pc respectively of basal area.
The goal is to produce a saleable log at clearfell of 0.7- 0.8 cubic metres in as short a time as possible. Dr Farrelly's research shows that, with suitable thinning regimes on high yield class sites, it is possible to grow trees to this size in well under 30 years.
In fact, the rotation on these sites has been reduced by up to 10 years in the case of the grade D thinning as compared to the no thin trial plots, and on both sites the grade D examples will be ready for clearfell at age 24.
The income forecasts suggest that the optimal thinning regime can increase returns by as much as 58 pc on very productive sites.
Moreover, reducing the rotation length reduces top height at clearfell, which lessens the risk of windthrow on critical sites.
Most sawmills, especially the "big 8" that between them process the great bulk of the timber harvested here, obtain most of their supply from Coillte.
However Coillte's output has stabilised and with the private forest area now 47pc of the total, the future increase in supply will come almost entirely from the private sector.
Currently in excess of 3,500,000 tonnes of logs are harvested every year and transported to processing mills throughout the country. The logistics of this operation require detailed planning, which has evolved with the development of the State's plantations, and along lines reflecting the fact that the bulk of the supply is produced by one owner.
Traolach Layton, forestry manager at GP Wood, stressed the growing need for a partnership approach between the grower and processor.
He observed that there are now more than 15,000 private owners with an average plantation size of eight hectares, so private supplies are not nearly as predictable as Coillte's, and the logistics of managing it all are only in the early stages of development.
Timber growers and processors are mutually dependent, so a partnership approach is essential for both sides to optimise the returns and realise the potential from our forest resource.
Mr Layton stated that to get the best from the private forest estate we need efficient procurement, harvest and haulage operations, which in turn will rely on accurate forecasts and yearly production plans.
Timber needs to be offered in
viable lot sizes in a consistent and ordered manner, and owners need to become more aware and involved in the industry, and to organise themselves in a way that facilitates the efficient and sustainable flow of logs from the forest to the markets.
Mike Glennon, joint Managing Director of Glennon Brothers, agreed that a co-operative approach and pooling of resources is vital for private growers.
The processors are all working at less than full capacity and are crying out for logs, and in an industry that is now export-led, the shortage of homegrown logs has resulted in our mills paying the highest prices in Europe.
The message from the processing sector is clear: growers must commit to group management, certification and marketing; and we all need to develop a range of management structures that will meet the diverse needs of owners.
The speed at which the range of market opportunities for our timber products has developed in recent years is remarkable.
From the demand for renewable energy resulting in competition for pulpwood, to advances in wood engineering that enable construction techniques that just a few years ago were unimaginable, the future for timber is a positive one.
However, problems do remain. Joe O'Carroll, formerly operations manager with COFORD, now Managing Director of OC Consulting which provides expertise and management services in developing biomass projects, stated that while there is a clear market opportunity for biomass our addiction to imported fossil fuels shows no sign of abating.
Doing its best to remedy this situation is the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), whose objectives include promoting energy efficiency, reducing energy intensity and usage, and accelerating the adoption of technologies to exploit renewable energy sources.
Mr O'Carroll believes that the right supportive structures could stimulate demand for more than 1,000,000 tonnes of biomass within the next few years, all sourced locally.
An area where Ireland has made a solid international reputation is in the production of high quality panel boards, at the two Coillte-owned plants in Clonmel and Waterford, and the Masonite plant in Carrick-on-Shannon.
David Murray, Innovation Manager with Coillte Panel Products (CPP), told the Conference how CPP has introduced several innovative panel products in the past two years alone.
These include SmartPly DryBacker, a product designed to provide secure anchorage for heavy fixtures in internal drywall systems; and Medite Vent, which is a breathable external sheathing panel for use in timber frame structures.
These follow on from the earlier success of Medite Tricoya, a medium density fibreboard panel with a 50-year warranty for exterior use.
Finally, recent developments in wood engineering mean that the 20 storey timber skyscraper could soon be a common sight on city skylines across the world.
For some years now engineered products such as glued laminated (Glulam) timber beams have been used increasingly extensively, but the most recent development in this field is the introduction of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and this is the material that allows multi-storey timber structures to be erected rapidly and safely.
CLT is a mass timber panel product, constructed using short lengths of timber glued into panels, each panel comprising at least three orthogonally bonded layers.
It has a high load bearing capacity, rivalling that of steel and concrete, lower construction costs, behaves very predictably in fire, and stores significant quantities of carbon over the life of the building.
Led by Dr Annette Harte, research is underway at the College of Engineering and Informatics, NUI Galway, into the feasibility of producing CLT using Irish grown Sitka spruce. The results are eagerly awaited.
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org