Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 February 2018

Is now the time to set up a forest owners association?

Donegal group provides a model for what's needed

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

There are around 16,000 Irish farmers who have planted trees under the afforestation schemes that were introduced in the early 1990s. Many did so without having any knowledge of forestry, for in those early days proper, professional advice was hard to find.

At that time, Teagasc had people with no background or qualification in the forestry profession giving advice on forestry matters, and it was very difficult to know where to look for independent guidance and support. Many farmers also chose to plant without seeking any outside advice or assistance and this provided an opportunity for some unscrupulous contractors to carry out establishment work without proper care and attention.

The Forest Service did not have enough inspectors monitoring planting and, as a result, too many substandard plantations were left unchecked. Things have, of course, improved since then but this is of little consolation to the people who are left owning woodland that has no viable commercial future.

The years 1994-1996 saw a huge increase in private planting figures. Contractors and nurseries worked flat out to meet the demand from farmers and other landowners. Land prices were relatively low and the afforestation scheme looked, and indeed was, a very attractive long-term investment. But the final premium payment date is now looming for many of those who participated in the early years.

If those people own well-stocked, well-managed forests, then they can sit back and congratulate themselves on a wise decision to plant trees.

If their woodland has been poorly managed or the wrong species were planted, then they have a real problem on their hands. One can, of course, blame the unfortunate landowners themselves for not attending conferences, seminars and open days and learning as much as possible about forestry before committing precious acres to such a long-term use; but some were elderly or busy in other part-time employment, and perhaps some were also gullible and thus easy prey for the conmen and vultures that are present in every walk of life.

Whatever the reasons, many people are now faced with trying to earn an income from land that has been planted with trees not suited to the site they are on, and if they fell and replant with a fast-growing species such as spruce they still have to wait a further 20 years or more for an income from thinning. Our Forest Service has a responsibility to those landowners, as do the many other agencies who advised on what one could plant and where.

Perhaps the owners of broadleaf plantations could be given the option of having their woods incorporated into a FEPS scheme. The land could then continue to provide them with a modest income while benefiting the environment for the national good.

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There are no easy answers, but there must be some means of gradually introducing viable species into existing, non-viable woodland or managing it primarily for wildlife while allowing landowners to survive.

There appears to be a great need for an Irish Woodland Owners' Association. While there are numerous groups already in existence who purport to serve the needs of woodland owners, in reality they are either small offshoots of larger organisations that too often appear to see them almost as a nuisance, or they represent only the interests of the owners of large conifer plantations.

The Donegal Woodland Owners' Association is a good example of a 'self-help' group, who banded together to the benefit of their members, and perhaps this concept could grow on a county by county basis until finally it becomes a strong national organisation. The many sheep and tillage producer groups in existence around the country provide a great blueprint for how people with similar aims and interests can cooperate and help each other promote what they produce.

On the positive side, there are many aspects to woodland management and numerous ways of making woodland pay. It is only by meeting up with like-minded people who have similar problems to our own that we can find solutions, and then produce and market our timber to the best advantage.

The most useful adviser of all is the person with experience. You can read all the books in the world but nothing beats getting out and putting theory into practice. Lessons learned the hard way are always remembered and by sharing our own experiences we can help each other avoid the many pitfalls ahead.

So if anyone wants to form an Irish Woodland Owners' Association to represent the real needs of Irish farm foresters, please count me in.

Irish Independent