The Department’s Forest Statistics - Ireland 2022 provides up-to-date information on a wide range of topics on the forest sector in Ireland, including planting rates, species composition, forest sizes, timber production, employment, forest health and – this year – a section on public attitudes towards forestry.
The headline-grabbing information is already in the public domain, but exploring beyond the highlights is worthwhile to discover the real state of Ireland’s forests and timber industry. While the National Forest Inventory hasn’t been published yet, it is advanced sufficiently to show the breakdown of species (Table 1).
The total area of forest is now at 808,848ha or 11.6% of the land area, comprising 411,484ha (5.9%) of privately owned forests and 397,364ha (5.7%) in public ownership, which is mainly managed by Coillte.
“For the first time in the history of the state, there are more privately owned forests than publicly owned forests,” according to the report.
There are interesting trends emerging in species composition. Sitka spruce now accounts for 44.6% of the forest area (Table 1) compared with 47% in 2007, while total broadleaf cover now at 27% is well up on the 21.8% recorded as recently as 2007.
Ireland’s tree cover is well below the European average, but when the 6.4% or 482,000ha of “hedgerows, individual trees and non-forest woodland and scrub” are included, the countryside has 18% tree cover.
The report acknowledges that “diseases such as Phytophthora ramorum (mainly affecting larch) and Hymenoscyphus fraxineus – ash dieback – may influence species diversity into the future” but it is surprising that ash cover is estimated at 24,300ha compared with 25,300ha in 2017, given the devastation of the diseases. Likewise, larch still covers 23,800ha compared with 24,500ha in 2017, despite P. ramorum damage in the intervening years.
“There has been a gradual decline in the uptake of the afforestation scheme since 2013,” the report states. This understatement should have been followed by some comments on the reasons for this decline and how it might be addressed.
The decline in afforestation is shocking, especially when comparisons are drawn between counties for the period provided (2002 and 2021).
This is especially stark in Munster counties Kerry (1,825ha down to 121ha), Limerick (1,175ha to 60ha), Cork (2,094ha to 343ha), Clare (1,012ha to 174ha), Tipperary (893ha to 32ha) and Waterford (482ha to 33ha).
But this decline is widespread even in counties that have supposedly high afforestation such as Leitrim (467ha down to 98ha) and Mayo (929ha to 119ha), while Laois, which had a healthy 476ha afforestation programme in 2002, just managed 5ha last year.
Farmers who planted 81% of new forests in 1980 only planted 12% in 2020.
There are positive performances in roading. For example, “between 2006 and 2021 an average of 89km of private grant-aided forest roads were built annually.”
The total forecast of volume production for the island of Ireland continues to increase over the forecast period 2021-2040 (Figure 1). Annual production is estimated to increase from 5.0m m3 this year to 7.6m m3 in 2040. The report is confident that forecasts reflect actual production.
“[The] relative accuracy of the roundwood forecast data from 2016 and 2021 is displayed by comparing forecast data with the annual roundwood removals from the intervening period,” it states.
This is true, but data displaying timber removed from forests shows a marked difference compared with timber purchased by the industry, which should largely be the same except where logs are purchased directly by UK traders or where forest owners use timber for their own uses.
For example, in 2020, 3.9m m3 of roundwood was removed from Ireland’s forests for processing (excluding firewood) comprising 2.3m m3 from Coillte and 1.5m m3 from private forests.
Total roundwood purchased by the industry that year was only 3.0m m3 comprising 2.1m m3 from Coillte and 0.9m m3 from private growers. That 40% of timber removed from private forests wasn’t purchased by the industry needs clarification.
Since 1993, €2.6bn has been expended by the State and European Union on afforestation, including existing premium liabilities and other support measures for the forest sector, according to Forest Statistics.
This is an impressive investment by the State and EU, but it is forgotten that during that period, the private sector planted 253,000ha of land valued at €2.5m based on forestry land prices between €7,000 and €13,00/ha. Add in management and maintenance costs and the private sector’s investment far exceeds both the State’s and EU’s contribution.
In addition, for the most part, the State walks away from its commitment after the 15-year premium has ceased, while private forest owners – mainly farmers – are legally obliged to retain the forest in perpetuity, even when it has been destroyed by windblow, fire or disease, as ash owners have discovered to their cost.
The legal obligation to replant surely has to be addressed in the upcoming forestry programme (2023-2027), as well as the need to compensate owners of ash plantations.
Timber prices need updating
Forest Statistics provides timber prices up to 2020, so forest owners have little or no information on actual log prices achieved over the past 18 months. A forestry review rather than a statistical report would have addressed the issue of pricing, in particular why no log prices are available for 2021 and so far in 2022.
Coillte no longer makes prices available because of market sensitivity, while the UCD wood price quarterly for standing timber private sales has stalled due to insufficient data. As a result, private forest owners rely on rumour for price trends, as only Coillte and sawmillers have access to reliable data at their disposal.
The IFA published a Timber Price Survey for November-December 2021 for roadside timber, which is published in the Department statistics. IFA prices per tonne are as follows:
In the absence of real time prices, private forest owners are advised to market their timber to a wide range of sawmills, wood-based board mills, energy and other timber outlets.
Forestry and sustainable living is once again a feature of the Tullamore Show, which returns on Sunday 14 August. Located at the Butterfield Estate, Blueball, Tullamore, Co Offaly, the show is Ireland’s largest agricultural one-day event.
The Forestry and Sustainable Living Section is organised by Teagasc’s Forestry Development Department under the guidance of Liam Kelly.
“More than 20 organisations and companies will showcase many facets of Ireland’s rapidly developing farm forestry and renewable energy sectors,” he says.
“The opportunities provided by a farm forest enterprise to enhance family farm income, particularly through new afforestation, timber sales and wood energy will be highlighted at the Tullamore Show.”
He says there will be a big emphasis on promoting the revised Forestry Programme.
“Now is the time to get all the information on planting, thinning and harvesting as timber prices are at historically high levels,” he maintains. “Visitors will be able to meet key players from the forestry sector at the show.”
Further information available at show website (www.tullamoreshow.com) or email Liam Kelly, Teagasc (email@example.com).