Forest owners counting cost of storm as clean-up continues

Forest industry estimates that up to 7.5 million trees were blown down

Forestry expert Paddy Bruton looks at the wind-blown Castlecomer Plateau Forest in County Kilkenny where hundreds of trees have been uprooted in the last couple of months. Video: Dylan Vaughan

 

There is a gaping hole in a Co Kilkenny plantation where 900 trees once stood. Giant tree roots have been upended everywhere, and some are almost six foot high. The uprooted trees have fallen haphazardly across each other. One is still standing but the top half of the tree has been snapped off by the wind.

This scene is replicated in commercial forests all over the State in the wake of Storm Darwin which blew through the country on February 12th.

The Department of Agriculture says up to 7.5 million trees have been blown down.

Many of these forests are in remote areas so people do not realise the extent of the damage, according to the Irish Timber Growers’ Association. It says 5,000 to 7,000 hectares of trees, or 1 per cent of our forest area, has been blown down.

The south and southwest bore the brunt of the storm, but some forests in other parts of the country were also severely affected. They include Castlecomer Plateau in Co Kilkenny, which is one of the most productive forests in the State. This is where we see the gaping hole in a 25-year-old Sitka Spruce plantation.

“It looks like an absolute disaster zone. It’s nearly like a tornado went through it,” says forester Paddy Bruton of Forwood Forestry, which is managing this plantation. “We manage a forest down the road and there was no windblow at all.”

Another eight-acre plantation nearby was completely flattened.

Downfall
He says Storm Darwin may have felled the trees but the seeds of their downfall were sown months earlier.

“We had seriously high rainfall over the past number of months. And then we had five storms since Christmas, before Storm Darwin. Another factor here in Castlecomer is the heavy, wet, mineral soil. Storm Darwin was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

When the wind started to howl on February 12th he knew there was trouble ahead.

“No forest could withstand that. And once one tree goes, you have the domino effect. All the roots are interlinked.”

This 11-acre plantation will be completely cleared because the soil structure has been damaged and all the trees will eventually fall. The trees were not due for harvesting for another five years so the owner will suffer a financial hit.

Down the road a forest harvester machine is clearing another plantation. This one-man machine does the job of about a dozen people. It saws a tree down, tosses it in the air like it is a matchstick and then strips the branches off and stacks it in one of a number of piles depending on what it is destined for.

“We have a window of eight to 10 months to get this work done,” says Mr Bruton. “Nobody wants to see trees lying around like this. We want to get in and salvage as much as we can and then reforest it.”

Trees to market
Donal Whelan of the Irish Timber Growers’ Association says it is important that the industry works together to bring the trees to market in a co-ordinated way.

He estimates the forest and timber industry has an output worth €2.3 billion per year. Much of the timber is exported.

“With 90 per cent of the output from our panel board sector exported, along with over 60 per cent of Irish sawmill output, the sector is very important economically at both a national and regional level.”

Mr Bruton says it is difficult to calculate the financial loss caused by Storm Darwin as it depends on the age of the plantation and the damage done.

“But there is a clear financial loss. It will be months before the true cost is worked out.”