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Forestry: delivering for farmers in Cork

Of the 94,000 hectares of forests in Cork, 45,000 ha are privately owned. The majority of these private forests have been established and are owned by astute farmers and landowners who have seen opportunities to diversify their farming activity and create a complementary enterprise on the farm.

No wonder that with this increasing private forest cover, many enterprises have developed, adding value along the supply chain and supporting the local economy. These enterprises include tree nurseries, management companies, harvesting contractors, timber processing mills, educational and recreational facilities, furniture makers and various craftsmen and -women.

Farm forest owners in Cork have developed valuable insights and experiences on forestry. While each story is different, they have a common passion for land-based enterprises and a keen eye for opportunities to diversify and optimise resources.

This is the story of three such farmers.

Donal McCarthy, dairy farmer, Ballydehob, Co Cork

Donal McCarthy is a progressive dairy farmer based in scenic Ballydehob in West Cork. His overall holding is almost 103 hectares. Donal’s dairy enterprise is concentrated on a fertile platform of 27 ha surrounding the farmyard, sustaining a herd of 70 dairy cows. The remaining land is located in out farms. Donal was one of the earliest farmers to join REPS over 23 years ago. He is also currently in GLAS.

In 2009, Donal considered what to do with 11 hectares of marginal land located 13 kilometres from the main farm. Knowledge is the key to informed decision making for Donal. He considered the location of this land, the cost of reclaiming land with heavy soils and the subsequent returns from farming.

Donal researched various options. The benefits of forestry became evident. The land is close to existing productive forestry. Afforestation grants would cover planting costs. An annual tax-free premium of €427 per hectare would be available over 20 years. In addition to this, his land, if forested would meet the required criteria and be eligible to draw down the Single Farm Payment and subsequently the Basic Payment. The tax-free nature of forest premia coupled with the future timber sales were seen by Donal as strong advantages.

He decided that forestry was the right option for him and the 11 ha were planted in March 2010 by forester Alan Farrelly of Greenbelt, mainly with commercial forest species combined with additional broadleaves for biodiversity and landscaping purposes.

Five years later, Donal went on to plant a further 27 ha on another parcel located 10 kilometres from his main farm. This is also a commercial forestry venture with a 10% inclusion of alder, a native broadleaf species. His more recent forest enterprise provides him with similar attractive payments, €510/ha on the majority of the plantation paid over 15 years. The reasons for his decision to afforest were similar to those that convinced Donal to proceed with his earlier planting in 2010. The potential costs of land improvement measures would have been significant.

Donal says “I could have spent over €100,000 on reclamation but would still have land with lower income generating capacity for conventional farm enterprises”. He went on to say that his capacity to draw down the BPS payment and forest premia on the same land parcels is a great advantage. The positive experience of his previous forestry venture and seeing his forest premium appear in his bank account each January provided a powerful incentive to plant again.
Donal is one of the 30% of forest owners who, over the last ten years, have gone on to plant at least a second time following their initial planting decision. Donal is very happy with his decision to plant and –as he puts it– “has no regrets whatsoever”.

In addition to attractive premium income, he is very aware of the potential of well managed forestry to appreciate in value year on year, thereby providing a secure pension plan which he says “I will be in control of myself”. Donal can choose the optimum future time to cash in on his enterprise.

Forestry is a farm enterprise for Donal that, well managed, can optimise returns on marginal land while also providing many environmental benefits.

Michael Murphy, tillage farmer, Midleton, Co Cork

Michael Murphy is a tillage farmer in Midleton, Co Cork. Michael grows 10 ha of barley, incorporating some wild bird cover, and leases out the remainder of his agricultural holding. He planted an eight hectare native woodland over the winter of 2015-2016.

Michael’s view was that the 8 ha were, at best, only suitable for summer grazing because of impeded drainage. “This particular site has always been very wet and I felt the forestry would help to dry it out and also have a drying effect on the surrounding fields,” Michael said.

Having looked at various land use options and considering his interest in both the environment and the recreational benefits of broadleaf woodland, Michael opted for the Native Woodland Establishment Scheme (NWS Est.). This scheme is one of a suite of options under the Afforestation Programme. As well as earning a tax-free premium of €635 per hectare for the next 15 years, Michael feels that he will (in time) be leaving a living, vibrant legacy to future generations of his family.

While relatively uncommon, Michael decided to take on much of the work himself. As required by the scheme, he used the expertise and guidance of a registered forester, Mark Donnelly of Carrigrohane, Cork to process the grant application. Taking into account the wet ground conditions of part of the proposed woodland, Michael and Mark decided to plant a combination of 30% alder, 30% oak, 30% birch and the remaining 10% with holly, Scots pine and hazel. In addition, paths and open areas were carefully planned and integrated through the woodland.

Once grant approval was received from the Forest Service (DAFM), Michael sourced the trees himself, organised ground cultivation and then planted (with some help!) more than 25,000 trees over the winter of 2015-2016.

This year’s maintenance required control of the grass vegetation around some of the slower growing broadleaf trees. Michael is keen to limit herbicide use unless absolutely necessary, so he trampled the grass vegetation around individual trees instead. A small number of the trees also needed replacing.

Michael is very happy with his newly created native woodland as well as his active involvement in its establishment and on-going management. Michael said "One of the nice things about forestry is that you don’t have to worry about the vagaries of the market, at least in the first 15 to 20 years, and you are independent of big agribusiness. You are not trying to force your land to do something nature had never intended it to do”.

Michael and his family now look forward to seeing this very special woodland develop and thrive.

Abraham Kingston, dairy farmer, Drimoleague, Co Cork

Abraham Kingston is a dairy and former drystock farmer from Drimoleague, West Cork. His 28 hectares support 45 dairy cows as well as replacement heifers.

Abraham was one of the pioneers of farm forestry in the late 1980s when he decided to plant an out farm near Ballydehob. His reasons for planting run along familiar lines, “The land in question was miles away from the home farm, was heavy in nature and ideal for forestry”. Grants for drainage had ceased at the time. Abraham planted over 47 ha in 1987 with SWS Forestry Services. He is happy with his decision to opt for forestry at the time which he sees as another farm enterprise that suits his circumstances. He planted a further 14 ha in 1997.

Abraham needed to improve access into his plantation so he built a grant-aided forest road. With this improved access, he thinned some of the conifer element of his forest, yielding a net profit of €16,000. He saw this thinning operation primarily as “an investment in the future of my forest and improving my final crop”.

An area of 3.5 ha had to be cleared and replanted following damage caused by Storm Darwin in 2014. Despite the trees not having reached commercial maturity, Abraham estimates that the storm-damaged timber he cleared had earned almost €300 per ha per year since planting time. Abraham also carried out a second thinning on part of his forest around this time.

Abraham believes there is plenty to be learned by and from other forest owners. “The group structure is an effective way to facilitate knowledge being shared,” he says. He believes forestry has a huge role in carbon mitigation and planting more forests will be beneficial both for the economy and the environment.

Abraham is an active member and treasurer of the Forest Owners Co-operative Society Ltd, a timber producer group based in Munster. The co-operative was registered in 2013 and is owned and managed by its members. It aims to maximise the financial returns and other forestry benefits. It offers a range of services for its members from planting to co-ordinated harvesting. Abraham believes that forest owners can (and should) optimise their resource by working together. Similar to other sectors such as in dairying.

He is also one of the co-operative members engaged in a pilot group certification initiative. This initiative is supported by the Forest Service (DAFM). Such certification demonstrates that forest products like timber come from well-managed forests making the timber much more attractive to sell on international markets.

“Being part of a co-operative has been worth a lot to us, providing a strong voice through the group, doing business in a structured manner, keeping costs to respectable levels and providing us with the capacity to negotiate from a position of strength,” says Abraham.