Making your thinnings pay
Prices for timber are good right now and it makes sense to sell when market conditions are in our favour. But it's not always that easy, especially if the area to be thinned contains mixed species or is under 10ha in size -- or both.
It is costly to move large and expensive harvesters and forwarders and, if woodland is under 8ha, then in many cases transporting such machinery a distance to and from the site is uneconomic. For most smaller plantations, the best option is to co-operate with neighbours when hiring machinery and contractors and try to thin at the same time, or else do it yourself with chainsaws and haul out the logs with tractors, winches, horses or ATVs with the specially designed trailers that are now widely available.
Teagasc recently held an open day on tending and thinning of broadleaves, this time in a well-managed sycamore plantation near Summerhill, Co Meath. More than 150 people turned up to learn not just about how to carry out the work but, most importantly, how to make it pay. William Treacy, the owner of the site, chips all his own thinnings and uses them to heat his home and to sell on to other users. There is no doubt that, when managed in this manner, the faster-growing broadleaves definitely pay their way.
Open days like this are invaluable. They provide the perfect opportunity to learn from the professional foresters, meet with other woodland owners and share experiences.
In my woods in Meath we are currently carrying out a second thinning of ash. It has taken us several years to work out a system that allows us to economically extract the thinnings for fuel, and we are constantly looking for fresh ideas.
I have seen many broadleaf plantations where, following thinning, the brash was left strewn at random around the forest floor. This only impedes future access to the woods and makes life really difficult if you are returning later to high prune the better trees. Pruning is a hard-enough task without having to stumble through a network of branches lying on the ground.
It is not difficult when felling with chainsaws to stack the brash in lines every fourth or fifth row, leaving the remainder clear. One line will then hold the stems to be removed while the others are left clear for future access. The lines of stacked brash also provide valuable wildlife habitat as they slowly break down and decompose.
Perhaps the most labour intensive part of thinning broadleaves has been the manual handling required to lift the stems on to the quad trailer and then lift them off again on site for drying and processing.
However, as I write, Pat Egan, a forestry contractor from Moate, Co Westmeath, is removing and stacking ash thinnings for me with his recently bought Alstor eight-wheel drive utility vehicle. This vehicle was also on show at the Summerhill demo and may well prove to be the ideal solution for drawing out thinnings of broadleaves and in smaller conifer woodland.
The Alstor will go almost anywhere and crosses tree stumps, drains, rocks and other obstacles with ease. The full drive on all eight wheels ensures it doesn't get stuck while still being able to carry up to two tonnes if necessary. The crane grab appears to be able to handle either large conifer trunks or bundles of the more awkward and smaller broadleaf thinnings.
I have yet to see a suitable mini harvester on the market that can work efficiently in broadleaf plantations, but two good chainsaw operators and one man stacking the brash and stems can do a lot in a working day.
For the final task of drawing out the thinnings to the roadside, one man with an Alstor could achieve treble the output of two men with a quad and trailer. Its small size also means it can travel between rows of trees without needing to remove a full line, as is normal practice when using a larger forwarder, and it can be easily transported on a trailer behind an SUV.
Given the current demand for wood fuel, all thinnings are well worth harvesting and stacking to air dry. Many people are buying small five or 10t lots for household use and cutting them up at home. Others who are in the wood fuel business will buy larger lots for further drying and processing for sale to the public. It all adds up to a promising means of making thinning pay.
- Joe Barry