Into the woods
Meet the new foresters, people who plant trees for fun, for fuel and for the future, writes MANCHAN MAGAN, who has gathered in a decade’s worth of logs from his own patch of woodland
A mountain of firewood looms outside my house – enough logs for me and a few other households for a decade. This is the just the thinnings of the two hectares of oak and larch that I planted in 2000. It turns out that Ireland is the Goldilocks Zone for trees: they grow bigger, faster and better here than almost anywhere else on earth.
I wish someone had told me that within a decade of planting I would never need to buy oil again. My only problem now is what to do with all this excess heat – an aluminium smelter, perhaps? We all know that someone (you know who you are) stripped our land of trees, but until recently no one seemed to think of going out and replanting a few more.
The truth is that Ireland can easily produce vast amounts of sustainable bioenergy in the form of firewood and timber building materials if we choose to. In 1981 there were 400,000 hectares of forestry in the country. That figure has now doubled to 800,000 hectares thanks to grants that cover the cost of planting and annual tax-free payments for the first 20 years.
While most forests were owned by Coillte 20 years ago, now 50 per cent of them are private – small farm-foresters catching up with the knowledge and experience that European foresters have gained over centuries.
The big surprise is that, in many respects, our climate and terrain is more suitable than any of theirs.
Seeing my gorse and reed strewn fields metamorphose into a complex multi-layered woodland with pheasants, badgers and mushrooms in so short a time has been miraculous. It was largely an aesthetic transformation, until I thinned the forest – now it’s an economic one. To my neighbours who warned that foresting grazing land halved its value I now flaunt the valuable harvest, my little firewood mountain.
It is hard to over-emphasise the pleasure these two hectares have given me so far, from the anxious first years when the saplings were snapped by hares and bark-stripped by rabbits to the first time I saw a moorhen land in the wood’s marsh pool.
While the firewood will keep me warm for a decade, it has already warmed me three times before. First, when I was out stamping down weeds and routing rabbits in the early years after Coillte had planted it, then again last year when I began felling and debranching the 2,500 larch and Scots pine that were planted between the 6,600 oak to help them grow straight. It now warms me again as I gather in the trunks and chop them. The oak are 6m tall, and the larch were 9m before I felled most of them. Learning to use a chainsaw was an anxious period, especially after other foresters had shown me the nicks and tears from near misses in their own protective gear. But I took guidance from an expert and, by now, have internalised a safe set of movements. I received £6,000 (€7,300) to plant the 2 hectares and €1,500 for thinning it, as well as €350 annual payment (as a non-farmer), but the real reward has been the joy of working among these heroic trees as they devour carbon dioxide and pump out fresh oxygen.
In another decade there will be valuable thinnings of oak and the remaining larch to sell to the saw mills and use as firewood. After that I look forward to my big payday in 120 years’ time, when my oak will be ready to harvest.
By then, of course, my little woodland will be a precious local amenity and my descendent would never have the gall to clear-fell it. (Do you hear me, heir?!)
I planted 65 acres in 1996 – a mix of ash, sycamore, oak, beech, some alder, little bits of horse chestnut, cherry and walnut. I was at dairying and beef before, but gave it up for health reasons. This isn’t as hard, you wouldn’t have as many bills with it. The price of timber is going up the whole time, and getting scarcer, with forests abroad being cut down and burnt.
If every farmer had 10 or 15 acres we’d never be short of fuel. The ash is fit for thinning now and there should be hurleys in it in three or four years.
We had a problem with grey squirrels. They did a fair bit of harm, but the pine martins came in then and they deal with them.
I love going through the wood. It gives me great pleasure. I’ve heard a tree will generate enough oxygen for 30 people for a day, and a large tree can use 500 gallons of water a day. I often come down of a Sunday, and bring the pole saw with me – you’d come across a tree that looks bad and you’d make a good tree out of it.