Knowledge of thinnings will pay off

Forestry contractors are working flat out to meet the demands for timber from sawmills and wood fuel suppliers
Forestry contractors are working flat out to meet the demands for timber from sawmills and wood fuel suppliers

William Merivale

Forestry in Ireland is a remarkable success story. At the turn of the 20th century, the area under forest had dwindled to less than 1pc, with virtually no associated industry to speak of.

Today, the total forest estate amounts to more than 10pc of the land area, supporting an industry worth about €1.9bn a year and providing around 16,000 jobs.

Of course, the State had -- indeed, it continues to have -- a significant role to play in all this, but, in recent years, private input to this success story has been no less remarkable. The total area of private woodland has increased from 100,000ha in the early 1980s to the current figure of about 350,000ha, or 46pc of all forest in the Republic of Ireland.

Yes, this increase has been fuelled by the grant and premium schemes that were first introduced in 1993, but also it has only been made possible because of the appreciation on the part of landowners, principally farmers, to foresee that forestry is a legitimate and valuable land use in its own right.

With so much forest established in such a short space of time, inevitably the focus was mostly on establishment, but now that a considerable proportion of this forest has reached the stage of first thinning, the focus is broadening to include the management of what is a vital resource.

In fact, the National Forest Inventory has identified that as much as 87pc of private forests are ready to thin, but there remains a fundamental lack of knowledge as to how to go about it, which, in turn, causes much uncertainty.

During the course of the past few weeks, Teagasc organised four regional timber marketing days designed to help answer the typical questions raised by private owners looking to thin their forests, and to allow them the opportunity to meet forestry experts, potential buyers, and harvesting contractors.

I attended two of these excellent events and was struck by how well attended they were and by the degree of interest in the topics discussed. The one in Abbeyleix, Co Laois, on March 13 drew, I think it's safe to say, the biggest crowd ever in a single room at a forestry event in this country. Presentations at each event were given by Teagasc forestry advisers, producer groups, ITGA, self-assessment companies, forestry consultants, the contractors' association and sawmillers.

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It was evident from the question and answer sessions which followed that many private growers are really starting to appreciate that they can't sit back and just wait for it all to happen if they're to realise the full potential of their forests.

I've attended many such events over the years and it was heartening to experience this growing level of interest, not to say enthusiasm, at first hand.

One example was the extent to which the subject of certification -- touched on briefly at first by the sawmillers at each event -- sparked a lively discussion with many questions from the floor. I couldn't help comparing this to the reaction at a similar event about 18 months ago when the topic was raised, only to sink as rapidly as a lead balloon.

Clearly the private sector is waking up to the fact that forest management certification, long talked about as something that will affect us all at some stage in the future, is a very live issue now that the future has arrived.

Two areas that are clearly of over-riding concern to private growers are security and thinning control, both of which were discussed at the events. It may be reassuring to realise that certification will also play a part in helping to address these. I will return to the business of certification soon.

One comment has stayed with me. A contributor at one of the events volunteered the suggestion that if a grower was in doubt about how to go about thinning he should seek advice from a friend or neighbour, and preferably one who has carried out a first thinning and therefore has some experience.

All well and good, provided it is appreciated that most private growers are still new to the game and that the person seeking advice remembers that, all too frequently, free advice has a nasty habit of turning into the most expensive kind.

If in doubt, professional advice from a qualified forestry consultant, who also has full professional indemnity insurance, should always be sought.

Clearly, though, private forestry is coming of age.

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

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