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Creating a native farm woodland

Fifteen years ago, Michael Gallagher got grant aid approval to establish a native woodland on his farm. The woodland consists mainly oak with a nurse crop of Scots pine and European larch. Forestry advisor Steven Meyen and Michael tell us more about the woodland

Michael Gallagher is pictured above in his recently thinned oak woodland with his dog Myles

Growing top quality native hardwood timber while maximising biodiversity value

“When I took over the farm, I found that working in a full-time job while making the farm pay for itself wasn’t easy. At the same time, I always had a great love for trees. From a very young age I was an environmentalist, I was terribly bewildered by the massive decline in species diversity and the very few native woodlands we have left in Ireland. So I wanted to do something that would combine my environmental concerns and manage my property in such a way that I would leave it in a better way than when I got it and leave a valuable legacy. At the same time, I also want my farm to generate income to pay for its upkeep.”

So says Michael Gallagher who lives near Ballybofey in Co Donegal on a small 30-acre farm. When he took over the farm from his father, he ran sheep and cattle on about 25 acres. The other five acres were small, surviving pockets of native woodland.

He explored the idea of creating a native woodland on his farm. His first port of call was Teagasc to inform himself what financial support measures were available to him and how to go about making a grant application.

Woodland creation

Fifteen years ago, Michael got grant aid approval to establish a native woodland on the farm. The woodland consists mainly oak with a nurse crop of Scots pine and European larch. Part of the farm is located within a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) because of the nearby River Finn. A pure oak woodland was created within the SAC area.

Although the contractor planted and looked after the woodland for the first four years, Michael was very much involved from the word go as well, keeping an eye on the trees while doing small jobs.

His objective is very clear. He wants to grow top quality native hardwood timber while maximising biodiversity value. He manages his woodland on a close-to-nature basis. The forest will never be clearfelled.

Management operations

Over the last few years, management has focused on formative shaping and marking of the potential crop trees.

Formative shaping is a very important management tool in a young broadleaf woodland as it creates a single, straight length of quality timber. By removing forks or very large competing side branches, you ‘extend’ sawlog length.

Michael also selected his future potential crop trees (PCTs) before commencing the first thinning operation. PCTs should have good, straight stem form, have good vigour, be disease-free and are evenly distributed. He aimed for 300 to 500 PCTs per hectare. Some of these trees will go on to produce the final and intermediate sawlog timber.

The other trees are regarded as ‘fill’ and will gradually be removed providing growing space for the PCTs.

Michael is now in the middle of thinning his young woodland for the first time. The focus is on the removal of the nurse crop to give more growing space to the oak PCTs. He made the point that in Ireland we often thin too little and too late so he wants to thin sufficiently strong and on time.

The trees that are being harvested will go mainly for firewood. He is saving a lot of money that way as the firewood provides 100% of the home heating while the surplus will be sold to neighbours.

Once the current thinning operation has been completed and the final ‘sawlog length’ of the PCTs has been achieved by regular formative shaping then he will start some light high pruning.

The purpose of high pruning is to avoid knots in the timber. The lowest side branches will be removed, gradually removing branches up the tree as the tree develops but without impacting on the development of a healthy crown.

He concludes, “Naturally enough, I will continue with the formative shaping and high pruning of my quality trees. For though I have identified my PCTs and am in the middle of the process of thinning my woodland, the process of continually improving the quality of my timber is a continual process. And I love it as the benefits aren’t just for the trees, I get so much pleasure out of the wood and the work that managing it entails.”

Improving biodiversity

Maximising biodiversity is very important to Michael. He says, “The explosion in biodiversity from self-seeded trees such as hazel, holly and hawthorn to an increase in birdlife has been phenomenal when I converted these fields to a native woodland. I achieved this by keeping grazing animals off the land. That’s why I spent a lot of time making sure that my external fences are in good shape. It is amazing to see how fast nature is evolving because there are no grazing animals to take them out.”

He added, “I want this woodland to be as rich and biodiverse as it can be. For instance, bluebells, primroses, celandines, violets are gradually spreading into the newly planted woodland from the native woodland remnants scattered around the farm where they were always in.”

He is also retaining old trees around the farm as they provide great shelter and nesting sites. He is ringbarking large sycamore trees to create standing deadwood but also to prevent the spread of sycamore seedlings into his native woodland.

Pathways and ESB lines through the woodland double as important open spaces, creating a diverse patchwork of habitats, favouring many different species of plants and animals to flower, feed or breed there.

In one section of the woodland where the oak didn’t perform too well, the Scots pine is favoured instead of the oak allowing that section to develop into a Scots pine wood, thereby further adding to this patchwork of diverse habitats and woodland structures.

The thinning operations also contributed as the additional light getting to the forest floor is great for spring flora such as bluebells and for encouraging natural regeneration of tree seedlings.

Michael concluded, “I would love to be here in 200 years and look at magnificent trees in a rich woodland ecosystem. But I'm so happy that I'm here at the beginning, creating this special place. For this woodland to be here after all that time would be an excellent legacy – leaving this place better than when I got it.”

Ireland needs many more Michaels.

Michael is pictured below discussing the management of his woodland with other forest owners during a recent Teagasc forest walk.

Michael Gallagher Forest Walk

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