Many sawmill owners in Europe and America own forests to provide continuity of supply, especially during periods of timber shortages and high prices. Forestry evolved differently in Ireland compared with countries with strong wood cultures. As a result, none of the large and medium Irish sawmills have their own forests.
The large attendance at the recent field day in Co Leitrim discovered the advantages of forest ownership, especially when owned by a sawmill. Crowe’s Sawmills Ltd near Mohill, established in 1903, is not only unique because it is the oldest sawmill in Ireland, but it also produces a ready supply of timber from its own forests. One of these is a 13.5ha mainly Sitka spruce forest, established by Mack Crowe in 1989, adjacent to the sawmill.
Mack Crowe (centre), Crowe's Sawmill Ltd, on his reforested site in Mohill, with Marina Conway and Victor Barber, Western Forestry Co-op, who managed the planting and maintenance.
“We carried out three thinnings from year 16 up until the area was clear-felled in 2017,” he said. At that stage some of the forest had suffered from windblow, but all the material was salvaged as the Sitka blew over without shattering.
Growing their own forest by a sawmill means that instead of paying €2,500 for a truck-load of quality spruce, Mack and his son Alan have the raw material available on their doorstep free of charge. Well, not exactly free, because there are maintenance, harvesting and reforestation costs. However, mill ownership provides major advantages especially when the timber is only a stone’s throw from the sawmill.
The field day organised by the Irish Timber Growers’ Association (ITGA) and Western Forestry Co-op covered the following aspects of forestry in the Mohill area: Reforestation after clear-fell.Adding value to spruce and minor conifers.Wood energy benefits.
The reforestation challenges facing forest owners are similar to afforestation, but with a number of significant differences.
The site will require mounding and reforestation sites will contain lop and top, which makes planting difficult unless it is windrowed, or removed for wood energy
The forest owner has the advantage of knowing how the reforested species will perform based on the performance of the original crop. Also the site is likely to be well-roaded. The site will require mounding and reforestation sites will contain lop and top, which makes planting difficult unless it is windrowed, or removed for wood energy. Unless the site is planted quickly after clear-fell, major problems can arise during reforestation, explained Victor Barber, harvesting and sales forester with Western Forestry Co-op.
“Get in as soon as possible after clear-fell to beat vegetation competition and plant the strongest and best-quality nursery trees,” he advised.
“Choose strong trees also because they are more resilient against large pine weevil damage, which is a major challenge on reforestation sites,” he said.
Pre-dipping trees in the nursery allows three months or more protection and coupled with spot-spraying, it should protect the crop. Without regular inspection and control when required, weevil can cause serious damage to young plants. The times to be specially vigilant are April and May and again in August, as the emerging adults feed on the bark and underlying tissues of newly planted trees.
Sitka spruce is still the predominant species, but covers 78% of the area compared with total cover in the original plantation. The remaining area comprises 22% birch, alder and red oak along with open spaces and setback from watercourses and a ring fort. This will reduce productivity significantly in the second rotation, which receives no State funding for loss of income.
Crowe’s Sawmills, once a producer of construction and pallet timber, changed its product range after the collapse of the construction market in 2008. Today, the emphasis is on adding value to its timber by producing high-quality fencing, flooring, panelling, gates and products aimed at leisure and other niche markets, while construction timber for farm buildings is also an important outlet.
Over the years, the mill has changed from being a wholesaler to a predominantly retail business, with strong reliance on internet business. It can process large logs averaging 60cm in diameter, unlike many of the larger mills. However, the main difference is its ability to add value not only to Sitka spruce, but a wide range of minor conifers, especially larch and pine species, Douglas fir and Norway spruce.
Timber produced from Leitrim forests is sawn in mills such as Crowe’s, but most of the medium to large material is processed in two Co Galway sawmills – the Murray Group, Ballygar, and ECC in Corr na Mona – with most of the small logs and wood residue going to Masonite in Carrick-on-Shannon.
The Keslan C645T-2 chipper at McCauley Wood Fuels Ltd, Mohill, Co Leitrim, providing wood chips to local enterprises and businesses which have converted to renewable energy. Woodchips from McCauleys displace 150,000 litres of home heating oil every week."
There are other markets such as horticulture and bedding, but a really growing outlet is wood energy, as exemplified by McCauley Wood Fuels, in Mohill.
“The last place I want to see timber from our forests going is to McCauley Wood Fuels,” joked Marina Conway, CEO of Western Forestry Co-op.
However, she acknowledged that wood energy is now a major sector and McCauleys is a key outlet for small and low-grade logs, ensuring that there is no waste in the wood production cycle.
Brian McCauley and his son Kenny have grown this market steadily over the years. Just as the Crowes switched their marketing philosophy after the construction crash, so did the McCauleys.
Brian and Kenny identified a market opportunity for wood chips and firewood and have grown both markets steadily.
“We are certified under the Wood Fuel Quality Assurance scheme, and our customer base ranges from small-scale domestic users to commercial and industrial markets such as hotels, leisure centres, piggeries and wood processing plants,” said Kenny.
McCauleys now purchase and process 10,000m3 of timber annually, comprising small, crooked and other inferior logs that don’t make it to the construction and fencing markets.
Kenny McCauley said that wood energy has huge potential in Ireland, especially for small, low-grade forest logs. He also maintained that wood energy can play an important role in helping Ireland meet its climate change targets, just as it is doing in countries such as Austria, Denmark and Sweden.
“Timber that is chipped here displaces 150,000 litres of home heating oil every week,” he said.