High demand for timber is a boom waiting to happen

State sees neither forest nor the trees

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Despite our being in the depths of a global economic recession, timber has never been in greater demand for use both in construction and as an energy source.

Our land and climate are the best in Europe for growing trees and we should be producing more of them.

Since our ancestors first learnt to use fire, make spears and build rudimentary dwellings, wood has been the principal material used to improve living standards. Timber has always played an essential role in the development of civilisation for it is a unique material with countless applications.

Wood is the ideal sustainable and renewable product; it can be produced easily on land that is marginal for other agricultural purposes, while at the same time supporting countless rural businesses and, unlike the pollution caused by mining and the production of plastics and metals, forests greatly benefit the landscape and environment.

The recent development of more sophisticated timber products has been rapid and it seems only a few years since I was offered sawdust for free to use as cattle and horse bedding. But now, every speck is required for the manufacture of wood pellets for fuel.

On a recent Irish Timber Growers Association visit to Laois Sawmills, we were shown a vast shed used for storing the 30,000 tonnes of pellets they make annually. The building was virtually empty as the pellets were being sold almost as quickly as they could be made.

While some problems have occurred with small home heating pellet units, the savings compared with purchasing oil or electricity are huge for the larger industrial units heating swimming pools, hospitals, hotels and other high-energy applications which all require fuel throughout the year.

A number of power stations in Britain have already converted from coal to wood pellet burning and in 2012 consumers in Europe used 13m tonnes of them. This figure is projected to rise to 25/30m tonnes by 2020.

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Prices for wood are going through the roof and the price of hardwood from Western Canada has risen by approximately 60pc since the end of 2011. The use of wood chip and logs for heating has also grown dramatically. The big question now is where will all this timber come from? Just one power station could get through an entire year's supply from the private woodland sector if burning timber alone.

Huge advances have also been made in the use of timber for construction and the manufacturers of Glulam or glued laminated timber claim the product has almost double the tensile strength of steel and is superior to concrete for many building applications.

Laminated beams and arches can now span greater distances than traditional wooden beams without the use of supporting columns. These beams have been used in the construction of bridges and even sports stadia and, being lighter than steel or concrete, are easier to transport and erect.

It is clearly in the nation's interest that we grow more trees yet, while demand for timber increases worldwide, our Government remains reluctant to act and convince farmers of their long-term commitment to afforestation schemes.

Demand

While Sitka Spruce remains our number one crop in Ireland, there is also a strong demand for quality hardwoods, the best of which fetch remarkable prices and every farm should have some as an investment for future generations.

Mixed species woodland has numerous advantages including increased protection against disease. The Pro Silva organisation hosted a field trip to Rahin Woods near Kinnegad recently where we saw mixed species woodland with some fine oak planted in the 1930s growing alongside beech and some assorted species of conifers. Leading the event was Phil Morgan, president of Pro Silva Europe.

Phil is the author of a booklet 'What makes close to nature forest management an aAttractive choice for Irish farmers?' It can be downloaded from the Pro Silva Ireland site.

Continuous cover woodland management has many attractions for owners of farm forests and is a system I hope to apply to my own woods for its benefits have already been proven in many countries.

I believe retaining a permanent woodland cover will save money, eliminating the cost of replanting and reduce the threat of windblow.

Forestry in Ireland is still in its infancy and we have a lot to learn from our European counterparts.

Irish Independent


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