Hurley butts are reputedly the most expensive timber on the market and the best are fetching up to €500/m3. I only recently discovered for myself just how valuable they can be, especially if we harvest and plank them ourselves.
When thinning ash, the simplest and most straightforward solution is, of course, to sell the butts standing in the woods direct to a hurley maker and let him do the hard work. However, the gap between the price of the butt standing and the price when it is planked and ready for sale can often make doing it yourself very worthwhile.
A friend who owns a large ash plantation in Kildare alerted me a few months ago to the opportunities for adding value by these means and more recently, Teagasc produced detailed information on how to mark and harvest butts for sale. When sold standing, they fetch anywhere between €10 and €20 each, depending on size and quality, but once harvested and planked, the same butt can fetch between €30 and €70. Do not, however, think all butts are going to fetch high prices.
The ideal butt is around 34cm DBH and has four 'toes', which enable the sawmiller to extract the maximum possible number of quality planks. This perfect butt is probably worth €70 planked but most butts are smaller than this, have blemishes and maybe only two toes which means much of the timber is consigned for firewood. It's a bit like grading cattle in the meat factory where a U-grade Continental breed bullock will fetch the top price while a Holstein with bad conformation is worth substantially less.
Many of my own butts are 18/22cm DBH. They would be worth considerably more if left another 10 years but in order to continue respacing, they have to be removed. I am confident we will have better and more valuable material to sell each time we thin.
A few weeks ago, I attended a field day at the Columban Fathers woodland at Dalgan, near Navan in Co Meath, and having listened to Teagasc adviser Michael Somers, I decided to bite the bullet and carry out our own harvesting. This, of course, meant my son Peter having to learn the hard way and after a lot of spade work and blunting many chains he wasn't quite as enthusiastic as I was to continue with the work. Cutting butts can be tough going but having said that, it's not rocket science either and is something any competent chain saw operator can learn through trial and error. With the fashion nowadays for a larger bás, care is needed when harvesting to retain full value and enable the sawmiller to produce the maximum number of planks.
Jim Dunne, who operates a sawmill near Drangan in Co Tipperary, also spoke on the day and, with years of experience in planking butts, he was able to give us some very useful hints and tips. Jim said that butts are more difficult to harvest from mounded ground and the general opinion was that if land needs to be mounded, then it is probably not suitable for growing ash.
Unlike many other tree species, it requires good limestone land if it is to thrive and Jim stressed that fast-grown Irish ash is far superior to the slower grown imported product. The problem hurley makers currently have is getting enough of our native product. However, as most of the ash currently being harvested in Ireland is coming from relatively young plantations, as they mature, we should be able to gradually replace the imported product with our own faster grown and more flexible native timber.
Following the field day at Dalgan we harvested 23 butts and delivered them to Jim Dunne's sawmill in Tipperary.
Much to Peter's relief, Jim said that all bar one had been cut perfectly so we will wait and see what extra income we have earned once the planks have been sold. Like many farmers who planted in the early 1990s, my premium income will soon end and I am conscious of the need to produce a worthwhile return from our woods.
As ever, beware of theft and use the advice from Teagasc.