Mild winter has hit wood fuel sales but holly crop is on fire

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

The unusually mild start to winter is not doing our wood fuel business much good. Christmas is fast approaching and, by this month, we expected to be flat out making deliveries. The contrast between now and the same time last year, when heavy snowfalls left people fearful of being marooned without fuel, is remarkable.

The lack of frost is affecting all home heating businesses, but I cannot complain as the extra time available is welcome in order to get some further thinning work done.

With the ash woods now in their 17th year, an added bonus this time is the sale of better sized hurley butts. A surprising number of the trees I have marked for removal have achieved a diameter at breast height of 20-25cm. This is substantially better than the second time I thinned and sold butts, which then averaged only 16cm.

While many would say that I should be removing a greater number of trees less often, I justify this more intensive regime by doing most of the work myself. I also believe that, by removing a little and often, I am maximising the growth potential of the woods and harvesting a greater tonnage of fuel overall.

Where two of the remaining potential final crop specimens are growing close to each other, it is now necessary to remove one. Having spent so many years thinning out the crooked and poorly performing trees, I now find it hard to consign top quality individuals to the wood pile, but it has to be done for the long-term good of the trees. Following marking, Enniscorthy-based hurley maker John Jordan has selected a number of these that are suitable for his own use, and the income from selling these butts will help towards the overall thinning costs.

Another crop that is bringing in some cash is holly. Many people were sceptical when I originally planted hundreds of holly saplings around the edges of the woods. However, not only have they grown rapidly and provide an extra wildlife habitat, but they are also producing a good supply of stems for making into wreaths and other Christmas decorations.

The berries on the holly this winter are astonishing -- many bushes are simply laden with them. Everything seemed to grow in abundance this year, even the apple crop was outstanding. I have never before seen so much berried holly and even the more exotic varieties such as Golden King and JC Van Toll are all covered in clusters of red berries and are ideal for sale.

The extended mild spell must also be helping keep the birds away for now, but I know that the frosty nights forecast will have the blackbirds, fieldfares and thrushes flocking in and feasting on them before long.

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Anyone with Christmas trees to sell must be also rubbing their hands with glee, as prices have gone through the roof. I have heard of wholesale prices of €30 and over for standard trees, and it's hard to imagine how the retailers who rely on this trade can purchase them and still make a profit. The high prices for trees this year will mean that theft will increase and extra vigilance will be needed, especially on isolated sites.

Like so many agricultural products, the Christmas tree market is a classic example of a boom/bust situation. It was around 20 years ago when I contemplated growing them and was advised by a Coillte employee not to bother, as they had planted them in such numbers that the market was likely to be flooded. I took his advice and it proved timely, as seven years later one could buy excellent non-shed trees for €10/12 each. When you consider the time it takes to grow them, the inevitable wastage and the management required to produce good specimens and deliver them to retailers, one can see why Coillte got out of the business. So did many farmers who could not survive in competition with them, and this year we are reliant on costly imports.

Why do our semi-State bodies insist on competing with farmers and others in the private sector and using taxpayer's money to do so? Bord na Mona has invested heavily in the waste market and is also selling wood fuel. I only wish we had their financial and marketing resources.

Indo Farming

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