For much of the past 100 years, forest measurement techniques changed very little, and to take accurate measurements from a sufficient number of sample plots is inevitably labour intensive.
Typically the tools of the trade consist of a girthing tape to measure diameter at breast height, a hypsometer to measure tree height and, more recently, electronic calipers connected to a portable computer which speeds up the recording process.
Over the past few years, Cork-based forest technology company Treemetrics Ltd has developed a completely new system of forest measurement that is now gaining international recognition for its considerable accuracy.
Using sophisticated laser scanning equipment, Treemetrics can not only measure the volume of a stand, but also assess tree form, taper and stem straightness before a saw goes anywhere near it.
Previously, these features could only be established after the tree was cut.
Started by foresters Enda Keane and Garret Mullooly in 2005, Treemetrics now has a staff of 15 people comprised of foresters and software engineers, and its systems have been tried and tested as far afield as Australia and South America, as well as closer to home.
James Jones, the largest sawmilling group in Britain, has expressed interest in the Treemetrics system. This follows an independent large-scale study across a number of forests in Britain that found the system had a margin of error in the range of just 0.9-1.5pc. By comparison, manually based systems would normally have a margin of error of 10-15pc.
One aspect of management planning, and measurement, that has bedeviled foresters is the difficulty in maintaining informative, accurate maps.
As the forest grows and closes canopy, it is increasingly difficult to maintain a picture of productive area, and frequently the forest manager can only make an informed guess regarding the percentage that is unproductive.
Treemetrics is the first system that integrates satellite imagery with aerial and terrestrial laser scanning, allowing accurate mapping of the forest into all categories of productivity.
Aerial scanning enables the forest manager to stratify the forest more accurately than from field inspections alone. When this is integrated with the data obtained from scanning sample plots on the ground, it adds to the fund of information.
The terrestrial scanning is now accompanied by GPS technology, which means that not only are the co-ordinates of the sample plots recorded but those of individual trees as well. This in turn increases the ease with which the data can be independently verified.
Mr Keane from Treemetrics talks of the "collision of interests", not just between buyers and sellers, but between the different buyers' requirements. He maintains that correct use of Treemetrics software can increase the timber yield from a plantation because it enables both buyer and seller to assess the optimal cutting regime to maximise the available volume in the respective size categories, and to match that volume to the demands of different buyers.
He adds that the system also has considerable potential as an aid to inventory preparartion and forest valuation.
Mr Keane says the aim of Treemetrics is to help forest owners, their consultants and sawmillers to do better business together. Visit their website at www.treemetrics.com
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: email@example.com