Forestry pays. That is an indisputable fact and the proof of it can be seen in the many places around Ireland where woodland owners are using their skill and imagination to get the most out of their trees.
I am constantly being asked how to make woodland, and especially broadleaf woodland, give a decent financial return. The best answer is to take a look at how others have approached the management of their trees and how their woods are giving them a solid and sustainable cash return.
William Treacy and Trish Smith live in Beechwood Lodge, near Trim, Co Meath, and, having bought the property in 1997, they set about seeing how the land could be best used to provide them with an income and enhance their environment.
A previous owner had landscaped the grounds in the 1970s with small woods, copses, hedges and garden features, and this provided such an attractive setting that they decided to expand on the existing features and get involved in rural tourism. Eleven years ago, they converted some stabling into three apartments and advertised them as self-catering holiday homes.
This proved so successful that they decided to expand and, having researched the market, found the demand was primarily for three-bed bungalows as holiday lets. They now have a total of six to rent, all set within mature gardens and woodland, and the demand is such that it justifies them remaining open throughout the year.
Holidaymakers from all over the world stay at Beechwood Lodge and often family groups will rent two or more houses while touring in the area. Occasionally, people who have sold a property require somewhere to stay while either building or searching for a new home. Managing accommodation such as this is not for the faint-hearted but perhaps the key to their success is in their attention to detail and the way they use their woodland.
While the holiday home enterprise is a great example of how creative thinking can reap dividends, for me the most interesting aspect of the business is how all the houses, including William and Trish's own residence, are now heated with thinnings from their woods.
In 1998, William planted the remainder of the land, totalling 11ha, with a sycamore/ash mix under the afforestation scheme and is now totally self sufficient in fuel, while making substantial savings in running costs when compared with oil, gas or electricity.
Six years ago, he investigated the possibility of chipping his forestry thinnings and using them as fuel for home heating. Putting this in place proved a major task, which included some further building, burying heavily insulated piping between the houses and investing in a modern biomass heating system.
With some help and advice from Sustainable Energy Ireland, he installed the burner and buffer tank, built a shed to contain the woodchip and augur and also purchased a wood chipper, which can take logs up to 26cm in diameter. He further invested in a winch and small trailer for extraction, plus a bench-saw to handle larger material. Nothing is wasted, even the brash is put through the chipper and, by thinning gradually, he is managing his woodland to the highest standard, while turning the by-products into a valuable fuel.
William estimates that to buy oil would cost well in excess of €15,000 a year, while in contrast, producing the chip and paying all labour costs comes to around €1,000. That is a huge saving and he believes that, despite the high initial cost, the entire heating system and back-up forestry equipment will have soon paid for themselves. The shed holds a total of around 20t of woodchip and this takes around eight hours to make. The heating system requires close to 35t each year so he only needs to fill the shed around twice a year.
The use of a large, well-insulated buffer tank reduces the time required for the burner to be actually lighting. Similar to the design of log gasifier systems, the tank acts as a battery, storing large quantities of hot water for use as required.
Check out their website, www.beechwoodlodge.ie.
Look at the biomass heating system and note how the houses are set within the woods. Since starting up their holiday-home business, William and Trish have won a business tourism award for environmental responsibility. They should win further awards for thinking outside the box and creating a viable enterprise which demonstrates how forestry pays.