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Economic and practical benefits of farm forestry

Compare forest and farm incomes

Making a living from agriculture is increasingly difficult. Forestry on the other hand in not labour intensive and can free up more time for work on or off the farm, and for the family.

However, when comparing incomes from farming and forestry, look at the annual cash incomes for both activities. What will be the change in land use or the switch in investment from livestock or crop to trees actually mean in terms of annual income? Livestock and cereals provide an annual income, by way of subsidies, but when compared to forestry premiums, how do they fare?

Forestry in many cases can compete and often surpass agriculture in terms of increasing your income.

Timber production

For the vast majority of farmers establishing a farm forest, timber is generally seen as the main end product. In the production of commercially viable timber from the forest, certain management techniques and practices are best adhered to in order to maximise the income from the timber. To ensure a high quality final tree crop, following appropriate early management, trees are thinned at an appropriate age and size, normally on a regular cycle, until the remaining and most valuable trees are left for clear felling. The rotation lengths for each tree crop varies considerable. For example, the life cycles for Sitka spruce varies from 30-40 years while that for Oak and Beech can be upwards of 120+ years.

Without doubt, better and more consistent early management of your plantation will improve the final quality of the timber, and thus affect the value of your crop and investment. Traditionally, timber prices are stable and revenue from timber sales is treated favourably under current tax legislation.

In the current climate of increasing global populations and the increased use and diversity of wood products, the demand for quality conifers and broadleaves from sustainably managed forests continues to increase. Furthermore, with the increase in demand for “certified” timber, and increased pressures on environmental and socio-economic aspects of forestry, as well as carbon storage, forestry will offer additional environmental and economic benefits to the forest owner well into the future.

Lock the gate and throw away the key!

This is so often associated with forestry, but it is simply not the case. There is every reason why forest owners, with some professional advice, should become directly involved in timber management and harvesting of their farm forest and derive additional practical and economic benefits.

Economic benefits that can be gained from the forest can include for example, the production of fencing posts from early conifer thinnings or the production of wild forest mushroom in the first thinnings of broadleaves. Traditionally, fencing posts are a more lucrative market than selling thinnings to the pulpwood market. With the greater availability of mobile sawmills, farmers are now availing of the opportunity to convert bigger timber, conifer and broadleaf, on site, into value-added products including planks, beams, post & rail fencing, gates etc. For normal larger sized roundwood the farmer has the option of felling the trees himself and extracting to the road as part of a roadside sale. In all cases, health and safety must be a top priority.


Trees and hedgerows are part of our cultural heritage and have always been highly valued by farmers for the shelter they provide for livestock and crops alike. As a farm forest grows, it will help provide important and increasing shelter for adjoining fields (as well as farm buildings and houses).

This shelter effect can be further optimised by linking the forests with existing hedgerows or scrubland areas. Properly planted and managed shelterbelts and hedges can help reduce ground windspeed by up to 50% with resultant increases in air and soil temperatures of up to 5°C and 2°C respectively. Research shows that good shelter results in healthier livestock, earlier germination and better yields from cereal crops and reduced heat loss from buildings.

Shelter from forestry and trees in general may reduce livestock winter feed costs and veterinary bills, pesticide costs for more vigorous crops and heating bills for farm buildings.

Fuelwood production

Species such as willow and poplar are high yielding and adaptable species suitable for the production of large volumes of fuelwood over short rotations. This system, known as Short Rotation Coppice (SRC) and is used to produce heat and electricity or both.

The main management techniques within the coppice system are to cut all trees back to the stump, which will then send out multiple vigorous shoots for a second rotation. The trees are normally harvested every couple of years, dried and fed into boilers, ideally as part of a central heating plant. Such a management system can be self-sustaining over many rotations.

Coppicing is one of the oldest sustainable tree management systems and offers the important ecological and conservation benefits of a broadleaf forest. It may also be feasible to generate electricity as part of this system and to sell surplus electricity to the national supplier. Due to the costs involved, it may even be more beneficial at the local level where job creation and utilisation of local resources benefit the local community. As well as significant potential savings on heating bills, there may be the opportunity to generate additional revenue from the sale of surplus electricity.

However, as with all forestry enterprises, it is the responsibility of forest owners to consider the environmental impacts, economic viability and acceptability to local communities of each scheme established.

Sporting rights within Irish forests

In Ireland, there has been a long history of game hunting, enjoyed by many. However, due to the excessive planting of monoculture conifer plantations in the past, many forests of Ireland have become unsuitable to game bird populations.

However, with farm forestry, and the existing biodiversity guidelines from the Forest Service (DAFM), new forests are being developed with more open spaces, retained habitats and better ground cover, where birds such as the pheasant and the woodcock can thrive. The pheasant for instance, utilises suitable forest in the winter months and then moves out into open fields. In forests managed principally for the shoot, the income generated from sporting rents and let shooting can help increase overall income gained from the forest for the farmers. Furthermore, forest management aimed at improving the shooting value will generally benefit conservation.

The other main shooting activity is for wild deer. In Ireland, with the current population explosion of deer, many young plantations are being severely damaged. In such instances, land owners have the rights to shoot deer during the open season, but also, with permission from the NPWS, under Section 42, to shoot throughout the year, if excessive damage is being done to the crop.

In many instances, landowners can lease rights to local gun clubs or syndicates to hunt on their land. Also, ‘Tourist Shooting’ whereby tourists or individuals can shoot on a commercial basis, once registered, can also utilise the land. The controlled culling of deer under licence will not only serve as a useful management tool but can also be a valuable source of additional income for the owner by the letting of the hunting rights. However, as will all shooting activities, the landowner should make sure that any gun clubs or individuals shooting on their land should be fully insured.

Forest recreation

With their mixture of trees, wild flowers, wildlife, open spaces and streams, farm forests provide a haven of peace and tranquillity for both owners and visitors.

To avail of these inherent forest features, access to the forests is crucial if they are to be enjoyed. The best time to plan this is during the initial establishment phase of the forest. At this stage, access to and within the forest should be given a top priority. This will benefit both the users of the forest and is crucial for both future forest management and timber harvesting.

By including a simple but planned network of unplanted tracks, access to features of aesthetic or natural importance, such as lakes, waterfalls etc., or archaeological significance are maintained. In the ever-increasing need for eco-tourism and outdoor pursuits, this simple initial planning may benefit the forest owner through additional incomes as a result of pony trekking or quad bikes being allowed within the forest.

By observing the Forest Service (DAFM) environmental guidelines for biodiversity, water quality, archaeology and landscapes, together with a little foresight it should be quite feasible to accommodate reasonable access and recreational requirements.

Farm value

Modern living is influencing more people to seek out the rural lifestyle. Landscapes with trees and forests are seen as intrinsic features in this lifestyle. Good quality woodlands and farm forests are seen as real assets to the sale of land and will increase its capital value, particularly if premium payments are still due. For example, where the farm forest is being successfully managed so that timber production and pheasant management co-exist, the farm may increase its capital value by as much as 25%, compared with similar areas devoted entirely to agriculture.

The message is clear. Farm forests offer valuable practical benefits to owners with indirect cost savings and additional revenue opportunities to contribute to the profitability of the overall farm enterprise.