Farm Ireland

Friday 16 November 2018

Joe Barry: Delighted with thinning returns of Sitka spruce

Forest investments paying off, but a secure source of planting stock is urgently required

Grow your income: Simple, low cost buildings sited within broadleaf woodland can provide additional income when rented out for camping and self-catering holidays
Grow your income: Simple, low cost buildings sited within broadleaf woodland can provide additional income when rented out for camping and self-catering holidays
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Having recently carried out the first thinning on 4.5ha of Sitka spruce and 0.80ha of Norway spruce in Co Leitrim, my optimism concerning the wisdom of investing in forestry has been vindicated.

On a relatively small and difficult site such as this, first thinning can often be no more than a break-even operation.

However, it yielded a net return of €2,720 after all harvesting, transport and management expenses had been paid. The final sum exceeded €3,000, but on the advice of Harry Rynn of Woodland Managers Ltd who organised and supervised everything, we spent €350 on leveling ruts and improving the rather steep extraction route to prevent water logging. This will facilitate access for the next operation when we will then also first thin the remainder of the Norway spruce.

Harry had planned to start last year but the weather was so wet we agreed to postpone the job until conditions improved. This summer was ideal.

Having heard so many horror stories about woodland owners not getting paid for their timber I was impressed by the speed with which I received payment. As I live nearly 70 miles away in Co Meath, it was essential to have contractors in whom I could rely to not only thin correctly but also lay the foundation for future years when I can expect substantially higher returns.

It was also essential to ensure that neighbours, the Forest Service and the local authority had no cause for complaint. I even received a phone call from the harvester operator wondering if I wanted to visit the site while he worked to confirm that I was happy. If only all farming could be like this.

Despite my love of mixed species woodland, I do wish I had planted a higher percentage of conifers given the potential profits and the relatively short time involved between planting and harvesting.

The most recent newsletter from the Irish Timber Growers Association highlights the returns from forestry investment and quotes figures compiled by the Investment Property Database in Britain. Coniferous woodland there returned 18.3pc in 2012, with an average of 17.7pc over the past decade. These figures are remarkable given the downturn that business in general has endured for the past five years.

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In early September, members of the Westmeath Farm Forestry Group visited my woodland in Meath to see our wood fuel operation and view how the ash were progressing. While we are all concerned about the many diseases currently affecting trees, there is really nothing we can do other than hope for the best and continue to provide the optimum spacing and remove any sickly or diseased specimens.

Every year, I find a small number with canker or which are suffering from crown dieback but the thousands of young self-seeded ash remain healthy.

I read recently where some foresters in Britain believe they may have had Chalara in their ash for at least 15 years. The same could well be the case in Ireland and the longer I study the art of silviculture the more I become convinced of how little we know.

During discussions we found that we all shared a distrust of the provenance of many of the trees we had planted and walking through my ash the group could clearly see individual specimens that were a different sub-species to their neighbours. This is undoubtedly the result of inadequate monitoring of imports in the early 1990s.

To avoid the risk of planting poor quality material in future, a secure supply of Irish ash and indeed all other forestry species with improved genetic quality is urgently needed. I understand COFORD is working on this. We await the results.

The Westmeath group included two past RDS forestry award winners and it was interesting to hear their comments. We all agreed that making broadleaf woodland pay requires a lot of imaginative thinking and initiatives such as holiday homes in the woods and other leisure facilities can help, especially if one owns woodland in scenic areas.

Indo Farming