Farm Ireland

Tuesday 13 November 2018

It's easy to turn your back on woodland in the summer months – so now is an ideal time to inspect, assess progress and note anything untoward

Some root and branch autumn maintenance will pay off in the end

Time and again, and across all sectors, it has been shown that good management pays off and this applies to forestry as much as any other sector.

Good management includes setting clear objectives, planning how to achieve those objectives, and paying attention to the detail.

The fact that forestry is a long-term enterprise may create the impression that there is little need for action during long periods during a crop's rotation. But this should not be used as an excuse to shut the gate and turn one's back on the plantation.

Many farmers are too busy with other enterprises during the summer months to devote much energy to their woodlands, but now is as good a time as any to inspect, assess progress and note anything untoward.

In young plantations, heavy grass and other weeds may easily smother small trees during the winter.

In many cases, these can be dealt with adequately without resorting to spraying with herbicides. Manual cleaning with a brush hook or even just trampling underfoot may suffice. This is less costly, kinder to the environment and not weather dependent.

Herbicides can be essential at times, especially to deal with briars, gorse and woody weeds and scrub such as sallies, rhododendron and laurel.


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Again, autumn is a good time to spray against most of these species while the plants are still active and laying down their reserves for the winter. Scrub can be manually cut as well and this is often a feasible option once the young trees are well established as the crop will then have a comfortable head-start on the opposition.

Sustainable forest management policy should always aim to minimise the use of chemicals and only to use them when there is no real alternative.

It is very important in the early years to maintain stocking density at a level as close to the original planting density as possible.

This should be 2,500 stems per hectare for conifers and 3,300 stems per hectare for broadleaves.

While 90pc stocking is the minimum requirement for payment of the second phase of the afforestation grant, it is a good idea to maintain the density at 95-100pc if possible.

It is important to appreciate this is not to satisfy some arbitrary bureaucratic requirement. Instead, it has a direct bearing on timber quality in the years to come.

An under-stocked plantation takes longer to close canopy, will have more forked and crooked trees, and heavier side-branching, all of which have a bearing on the value of the forest's timber.

Check the foliage and leader growth in conifer crops as yellowing needles or stunted growth may be a sign of nutrient deficiency. If so, arrange for a forester to take foliage samples which can be sent off to a laboratory for analysis.

The analysis will identify the type and amount of fertiliser required to remedy any deficiency that shows up. The fertiliser should be applied in spring or summer when growth is greatest.

Bear in mind that waterlogging can give rise to similar symptoms, so it may be that some remedial drainage work is required instead.

Young broadleaves are less likely to be suffering nutrient deficiencies as they have probably been planted on better quality land in the first place. However, they should be assessed for formative shaping. Winter is the best time to shape oak and is also a good time to shape ash, sycamore and beech.

All fences should also be checked and repaired as necessary. Last month I wrote about a number of the principal forest pests, but did not mention one of the worst offenders, namely trespassing livestock. One man's peacefully grazing sheep or heifer is another man's serious forest pest which can do an immense amount of damage in a very short space of time.

Check that drains are functioning and clear any blockages. If you have any silt traps, these may need emptying to ensure they continue to work satisfactorily.

In older plantations, this may be a good time to start brashing inspection paths. I cannot over emphasise how essential these are. No one, be it the owner, forestry advisor, contractor or timber buyer, can begin to assess the state or quality of the crop if there isn't adequate access into the interior of a forest.

Once a network of paths has been brashed the owner and his forestry advisor can then start making informed decisions regarding the productive phase of the forest, from assessing the timing of a road grant application and its construction, to preparing for a first thinning. It should be remembered that all these operations can take time so forward planning is essential. And as many farm forests are highly productive and fast growing, it is important to get the timing of the first thinning right.

During the establishment phase of a plantation, it is easy to be penny wise, but pound foolish. A little money spent now on essential maintenance and sound professional advice will more than pay off in the future.

The timber prices achieved from a well-managed woodland more than repay the small additional effort involved.


The National Forest Owner Groups conference will take place on October 8 at the Ballykisteen Hotel, Limerick Junction, Co Tipperary. Organised by Teagasc in conjunction with the Limerick Tipperary Woodland Owners, the theme of this year's event is strength in numbers. This reflects one of the Teagasc Forestry Development Unit's objectives in establishing forest owner groups and encouraging active forest owner cooperation and participation. All forest owners, regardless of whether they are members of a producer group or not, are invited to attend this free event.

Registration is from 8.45am and proceedings will be formally opened by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Tom Hayes. Further details are available on the Teagasc website or from local Teagasc forestry advisors.

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

Irish Independent