at Charleville, Ireland
Given the fall in the market value of land after planting, should farmers be compensated for the full cost of acting as custodians of our national forestry asset?
This was just one of the questions raised at a truly unique meeting which took place recently at Charleville Castle in Tullamore It was the first occasion ever that the Irish timber growers have sat down in the same room with the environmental lobby and seriously discussed the future for broadleaf plantations in Ireland.
The meeting was organised jointly by Crann, who as our largest environmental NGO, have always promoted the planting of broadleaves, and the Irish Timber Growers Association who represent the interests of commercial timber growers. The objective was to start engaging in positive discussion and to try and remove misunderstandings about each other’s viewpoints.
Speaking after the meeting, Joe Murray of the Irish Forest Industry Chain said that he was delighted at the outcome and had never thought that he would see the day when people of such diverse opinions could sit in the same room and sensibly discuss forestry issues.
Donal Whelan of the ITGA felt that not only was the meeting long overdue but that it had helped greatly to dispel the many harmful misconceptions that are commonly held about forestry. He was glad to see the practicalities and problems of woodland management outlined so that all sides could see the difficulties that timber growers often encounter.
Ash can hold its own commercially with Sitka Spruce according to Crann vice chairman John Brosnan, but if we are to encourage more planting of the longer maturing broadleaves such as Beech and Oak, then some form of extra payment must be devised. This could be in the form of 30/40 year premiums and this idea is gaining in popularity. The long term nature of growing broadleaves must be recognised. Happily, the timber from Irish grown broadleaves now has an increasing commercial market and sawmiller Clarke Cunningham stated that he now employs six people in furniture manufacture and timber sales. Quality is the key he said, and Irish broadleaves must be produced with this in mind. Customers such as architects have to be shown the kind of top quality product that Irish sawmills can provide and it is a learning process for producer and customer alike.
Grey Squirrel damage - by Jack Tenison
Some dire warnings came from timber grower Jack Tenison who stated that grey squirrels are the single biggest threat to our hardwoods. We have planted thousands of acres of broadleaves over the past 15 years under the various forestry schemes, at huge expense to both the taxpayer and landowner. These trees can be wiped out in just a few years unless the grey squirrel is either destroyed or neutralised. Deer, which are expanding rapidly almost everywhere are a similar threat. While squirrels attack the tops of trees, deer work from the bottom up and destroy young trees by both grazing and rubbing.
The Hard Facts
Jack came out with some fascinating statistics on the financial realities of growing hardwoods and illustrated how, rather than forestry grants and premia being a hand out from the long suffering tax payer to the farmer, planting long term broadleaves such as oak represents a transfer of capital value of some €5/6000 per hectare from the farmer to the general public.
This is largely due to the fall in capital value of land after planting. A hectare of bare agricultural land is worth €10/20000 and more with development value. A hectare of bare land forest, excluding the timber value might be worth €2,500.
While the premiums for hardwoods are attractive over the first 20 years of the life of a plantation, the picture changes when you move forward.
After 40 years, a hectare of Sitka will be worth €15/20000 at today’s prices while a forty year old hectare of Oak will be worth nothing.
For all sorts of visual and environmental reasons, planting broadleaves is a public benefit and because of this, the public should be prepared to reward the farmer for caring for them. The farmer in turn should then perhaps be prepared to provide access to these trees in some circumstances and especially near towns, but cannot be expected to do this without adequate recompense.
The subject of public access arose again during the afternoon session where we took a walk in the Charleville woods. While naturally the public request access to plantations and complain when it is denied, private owners cannot be expected to foot the high insurance bills needed.
If widespread public access to woodlands is to be achieved, then some changes in legislation are required. The present system is ludicrous in that people can bring claims for negligence against property owners at little or no cost to themselves. Some solicitors provide their services on a no foal/no fee basis and many people feel that this practice should be discouraged. Also, people who bring false and/or malicious claims to court and are proven to have done so should surely then face punishment themselves rather than walking away free as currently happens.
Sections of Charleville woods are special areas of conservation and this creates its own problems. Woodland owner David Hutton-Bury is working on an area under the new Native Woodland Scheme and pointed out that if he were to comply fully with the management plan required, he would actually finish up out of pocket despite the grants. Deer are also a huge problem here and because of their grazing, little or no natural regeneration can occur. Deer fencing is probably the only secure way to preserve the area but the cost is prohibitive and currently the Forest Service are not prepared to foot the bill.
Declan Little of Woodlands of Ireland and Kevin Collins of the Forest Service spoke on the management objectives of the scheme and how it is currently evolving. Naturally there are teething problems but these are being dealt with as they occur and the scheme is now attracting an increasing number of participants.
The day long exchange of ideas can only bring benefits and produce a better understanding of commercial forestry and environmental problems alike. As Jack Tenison said, the only way to be certain of failure is to do nothing. Crann and the ITGA have certainly achieved something worthwhile by holding this seminar and field day. Hopefully it will be the first of many.