Into the woods
It’s a seriously pleasant way of life, but a hard one. I have a son managing the forest now, and I feel for him every day. All the old men I know who were foresters are bent like pocket-knives now, where they damaged their backs, or were crippled with arthritis. It’s an all-weather life, which doesn’t lend itself to longevity.
There’s certainly great potential because of the phenomenal growth rate we have in Ireland, and a high demand for timber. It could be a wonderful lifestyle if you integrated it with other techniques: in France they’re planting the trees 30m apart, and growing wheat and grazing livestock down through them. In the future, one of the oak woods I planted would have great potential for pig-rearing, producing oak bacon, ham and pork in the ideal habitat for swine.
The wildlife has increased phenomenally with the growth of my trees. It’s a diverse environment and attracts diverse species. My cardiologist tells me to keep walking in the wood for my health.
It’s calming, relaxing and you’ve far have higher oxygen levels there. It is definitely aesthetically beautiful.
That said, I wouldn’t encourage a young farmer to go into forestry now unless he had a vast area of land to plant and was prepared to be a total slave for 30 years, when he might then reap a certain amount of benefit.
(If the ash die-back takes off here it would be absolutely devastating. Our trees would be wiped out. Also, many of the older ash trees are covered in ivy which provides enormous amounts of honey to my hives in October. All that would be lost.)
The recent large-scale foresting of Ireland’s mountain valleys in spruce, pine and larch is one of most significant things that have happened in Ireland in 4,000 years. Managing this forest in a healthy, sustainable way depends on fostering and empowering a new generation of well-informed, intelligent foresters.
I established the sawmill at Future Forests mainly because I couldn’t bear to see all the fine local oak and ash burnt as firewood, rather than being processed into lumber. I’ve now handed the Future Forests nursery on to the next generation and in my dotage I am establishing a mule pack and training people in how to extract timber and manage forest in a low-impact way. The goal is to maximise local employment and ensure that local timber benefits the community in which it is grown.
We need to ask what do we want in 500 years’ time? If we’d like to have some 500-year-old oak trees we need to start creating this now, establishing the next generation of sacred trees. It is vital that we mix native deciduous forest, with faster-growing conifers. Having both is imperative, and neither is necessarily better than the other. It distresses me that in the last 20 years forestry has focused almost entirely on supplying the large mills at the expense of fostering local communities to do small-scale, low-impact timber extraction from local woods, for processing at small sawmills to supply local markets for local building.
Our rate of forest cover is one of the lowest in Europe, at 10 per cent. In a bid to encourage more tree-planting, the Department of Agriculture runs several schemes to compensate for the cost of establishing a forest and for the loss in income from the land.
Forest grants and the yearly premium payments are exempt from income tax, but the premium payments are reckonable for payment of PRSI and the universal social charge.
The afforestation grant and premium scheme encourage commercial timber production in an environmentally sustainable way. Under the rules, plantations must be managed as a commercial crop for the realisation of a profit.
It is open to farmers and non-farmers alike and includes planting and establishment grants and an annual premium. The planting grant ranges from €2,000 to €5,000 per hectare and is paid in two instalments over a four-year period.
The forest owner also receives a premium ranging in value from €126 to €515 per hectare per year. Farmers receive the payment for 20 years while non-farmers receive it for 15 years.
The department operates a native woodland establishment scheme, to encourage people to plant native species such as oak, alder, hazel and birch, depending on the soil type. Grant aid for the planting of ash trees was suspended last week, in a bid to halt the spread of the ash tree dieback disease. The grant aid and premium payments are the same as those available in the afforestation scheme.
A third scheme, known as the forest environment protection scheme, is restricted to farmers in the rural environment protection scheme. Farmers receive the afforestation grant and 20-year premium as well as an annual payment ranging from €150-€200 for a five-year period.
See agriculture.gov.iefor details of forestry schemes.
Alison Healy Food and Farming Correspondent