Farm Ireland

Thursday 19 April 2018

It pays to be thin but know when the trees are likely to be ready

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Many farmers who planted part of their farm 10 or 15 years ago are now wondering how best to earn a few bob more from the trees.

The premiums will end at year 20 but if they want to make the most of their woods then they need to get in early and start thinning.

Thinning pays, regardless of species. The main difference is in the timing of the operation. A good, well-grown crop of Sitka spruce could be ready for first thinning at year 14. Ash and Sycamore are best judged by height and a good guide is to thin when they reach 8m.


Beech and Oak, being slow growing, need longer than others and do not suffer from overcrowding to the same extent as light-demanding species such as Ash. Other than putting in access paths and depending on growth rates, they could probably be left alone until year 20.

If broadleaves are performing badly, it should be possible to thin hard and gradually introduce another species that would suit the site better.

In Ash plantations a good guide is to reach up, and if the nearest branch is dead and snaps off easily then it is time to thin. If the branch still has leaf growth then sufficient light is getting through and thinning should be delayed. Your Teagasc forestry advisor can help with advice on this and all other management requirements.

Virtually all woodland work can be carried out without the need for employing contractors and by using equipment that is already available on most farms.

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The average woodland in Ireland is 8ha so there must be many that are below that size and a number of farmers also have small woods scattered in different plots and on different holdings. Just because these woods do not meet the established ideal for it, clearfelling and replanting should not be seen as a disadvantage. We just need to be a bit more inventive and resourceful.

We do not need to rely on the systems of management that have evolved to suit large forests but rather learn from the example of other European farmers who have managed small woods for generations. Many are doing so profitably with just a chain saw and tractor, quad or horse.

If thinning is started early it can in many cases be carried out gradually, taking out only what is required to supply home heating needs.


Many woods can be managed profitably by just harvesting the farm and household requirements every year. Six to eight tonnes of fuel will heat most homes and first thinnings of conifers or oak make great fencing material. Sharing equipment reduces the cost of all these activities.

The Donegal Woodland Owners Association is providing a model for self help and have purchased machinery for hire to members, including two firewood processors for handling differing sizes of timber, a post peeler, a timber trailer and grab, a log winch, a log splitter and an Ifor Williams tipping trailer.

Being able to hire at reasonable rates removes the need for individual farmers to burden themselves with expensive equipment they might only use for a few days in any year. More importantly, it enables them to maximise the returns from their small wooded areas.

Irish Independent