With hurley ash, money really does grow on trees

Well-managed woods can pay monster dividends

Jim Dunne preparing hurley butts at his sawmill in Drangan, Co Tipperary
during an open day
Jim Dunne preparing hurley butts at his sawmill in Drangan, Co Tipperary during an open day
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

How times have changed. Only a few years ago you could wander into a Teagasc seminar or demo on forestry and find yourself part of a very small gathering.

In those days, farmer interest seemed to be confined to just drawing the premiums but with so many plantations now reaching thinning stage and timber prices at an all-time high, farm foresters are finally realising the value and potential of well-managed woodland.

Money certainly talks and nowadays the interest in learning more about forest management is such that you may have to book in advance to be sure of a place. A few weeks ago a demo on harvesting and extracting timber near Roscrea attracted a crowd of over 500 and a more recent event I attended, again in Tipperary on the use of Irish ash for hurley production, was booked out a week in advance.

This is not surprising when you consider that ash for hurley manufacture is the most valuable timber in the world. Quality hurley butts are worth between €500 and €700 per cubic metre and on good plantations these reach a saleable size at around year 15/20.

More children than ever are playing hurling and the demand for juvenile hurleys provides an outlet for the smaller diameter butts. A good butt should ideally have a minimum diameter of 20cm DBH (Diameter at breast height or 1.3m). It should be clean and free from all defects and have a good sweep with two to three clean "toes" and that all-important flexibility. This is, of course, where the grower needs to learn to manage the crop to keep it growing strongly and get the maximum number of good butts during thinning. Teagasc have worked out a simple method for thinning and this should be carried out regularly once the trees have reached approximately 8m in height.

We should avail now of the tending/thinning grant and the expanding markets for fuel wood. Through the sale of hurley butts and fuelwood, thinning leaves a good profit and paves the way for a much higher income later on.

We have planted 13,500ha of ash since 1990 and according to Forest Service figures, we will be self sufficient in hurley ash by 2019 onwards.

In the meantime, we import approx 1,600cm of ash out of a total annual requirement of 2,100cm. This is a big business supplying an annual demand for 360,000 hurleys.

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Given the large numbers of poor plantations and the high incidence of damaged butts we may take longer to achieve self- sufficiency than the inventory suggests. Not all butts are suitable for hurley manufacture and not all woods are being managed correctly. But if we thin regularly to allow the trees to grow rapidly it will pay handsome dividends in tonnes of firewood, quality hurley butts and an even more valuable final crop.

Theft of hurley ash has always been a huge problem with gangs roaming the country looking for isolated woods to visit at night. Hopefully, forest certification will help in eliminating this undercover market. Ireland imports more illegally logged timber per capita than any other EU state which is a disgraceful situation and must be quickly ended.

Through group certification via PEFC or FSC we can increase the markets for our timber overall and reduce the opportunities for thieves. Every stolen object needs a buyer.

By demanding hurleys only from certified sources we can help cut out the illegal trade.

Following the morning presentations, we visited a 16-year-old stand of ash to see at first hand the importance of proper marking and thinning. We then drove to Dunne's sawmill in nearby Drangan to learn how hurley planks are manufactured. I was surprised at how many defects can appear once the butt is sawn and how proper harvesting is essential to avoid unnecessary losses. Deer and hare damage can cause stains in the growing wood as can scrapes and dents on the trunks from passing machinery.

A good butt will contain the material for perhaps 10 senior hurleys and maybe three or four juvenile sticks. A damaged or misshapen one can contain less than half this.

Teagasc, Coford and the Forest Service have done us a great service by holding such useful and valuable events and the crowds that turn up are testament to the improvement in how information on forestry is now presented. For further information on hurley ash production and future events contact Michael Somers at 067 31821 or email michael.somers@teagasc.ie.

Also check out Teagasc at www.teagasc.ie/forestry.

Irish Independent

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