The average farm forest holding in Ireland is about 8ha or 20ac. This is small in forestry terms and consequently it can be difficult to achieve the economies of scale necessary to maximise returns.
However, the same problem exists across Europe where many countries have a similar average to Ireland. There is a big difference though. In Europe, most private forest owners have been in the business for generations, whereas the majority of owners in this country have yet to harvest, let alone sell, any of their timber.
The European private forest landscape is also characterised by networks of well developed, professionally managed producer and cluster groups, some with many thousands of members. By pooling resources and expertise, and by combining to offer several owners' wood lots for sale at a time, the net effect can be that the individual small owner can be in as powerful a position as much larger producers when negotiating prices.
Thankfully, producer groups are starting to become established in Ireland. While progress was slow to begin with due to the large number of forest owners feeling their way in a new venture, some groups are now well on their way to assisting their members with thinning, extraction and marketing their timber. These groups also provide the ideal forum for advice and exchange of views and experience.
A recent Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) field trip to a family-owned forest and cluster group member near Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, provided a great lesson in how to make farm forestry profitable.
This forest is a typical size of 8ha, but with a yield class of 26+ it is well above the national average in terms of productivity. This high yield potential is despite the fact that it is situated high on the Castlecomer plateau, on productive but intrinsically unstable soil. As a result, management of the plantation is geared not only towards maximising the returns but minimising the risk of windblow.
The forest is managed on behalf of the owner by ForWood, a joint venture between a forest management and a harvesting company, the management headed up by Paddy Bruton while Jim Hurley manages the harvesting.
Paddy Bruton describes ForWood as a cluster group of clients brought together for management and harvesting purposes. ForWood operates purely on the basis of charging a commission on the revenue generated from timber sales. Mr Bruton claims that this protects the interests of both the owners and ForWood. He added that, such is the demand for timber, they could sell multiples of the pulp-, pallet- and stake-wood they are currently selling.
The field trip was to view and discuss a third thinning which was under way. The plantation was established in 1988 and was first thinned at age 17 in 2005. It was obvious that if the first thinning had been left for another three years it would have been too late, as an adjoining plantation that was thinned after 20 years demonstrated. It is now suffering from windblow. Much of the discussion centered on whether the first thinning should have been carried out even earlier. Jim Hurley admitted that they are now thinning in the Castlecomer region as early as age 14.
The first thinning involved a conventional removal of one row in seven and a light selection between the racks, with a total volume of 40t/ha harvested. Availing of the grants that were available at the time, the owner commenced high pruning of the final crop trees the following year, first to 3.5m, and then to 6m after the second thinning. Even though sawmills rarely pay more for pruned timber, Jim Hurley likened it to selling a car – the cleaner and more attractive the package, the easier it is to sell and possibly the price achieved will be better.
Forest owners should remember that if they intend to prune, the ratio of pruned timber to knotty core must be at least 2.5:1. So a tree 16cm in diameter when first pruned must be a minimum of 40cm diameter when harvested for the benefit to accrue. Independent confirmation that the pruning was done in a timely manner will be required by any purchaser specifically interested in pruned material.
The second thinning in 2008 was lighter with just 30t/ha removed. This brought the stocking density down to 1,150 stems per hectare. The average tree volume prior to the current third thinning was 0.45 cubic metres, giving a standing volume of 517 cubic metres per hectare. This third thinning involved the removal of a further 250 stems per hectare, leaving a stocking density of 900 stems at an average tree size of 0.50 cubic metres, or a standing volume of 450 cubic metres per hectare. The breakdown of the produce from the third thinning was as follows:
Discussions with the owner will now concentrate on the feasibility of carrying out a fourth thinning prior to clearfell. Ideally, if the windthrow risk is deemed to be slight, a further 250 stems per hectare will be removed, which would result in an estimated 420 cubic metres per hectare at clearfell prior to age 30, which could be expected to realise about €18,000/hectare.
The harvester used is a John Deere 1070E and it is worth noting that the same driver has done all the thinning to date. Consequently, he knows the plantation well and has developed an interest in ensuring a professional job is done.
ForWood can be contacted on 056-7702243.
William Merivale is secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org