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In this guest blog, Dr. Nuala Ní Fhlatharta, Head of the Teagasc Forestry Development Department, provides us with an insightful and comprehensive overview of the opportunities and challenges facing the forestry sector in Ireland. Dr Ní Fhlatharta also highlights two EIP-AGRI forestry initiatives that she was involved in over the past few years with other experts in this field from across the EU on the topic of ‘Wood Biomass Mobilisation’ and ‘New Value Chains from Multifunctional Forests’. She explains that EIP-AGRI Operational Groups have the potential to progress both these areas.

The area under forest in Ireland has increased from what was a worryingly low level of about 1% of our land area at the beginning of the 19th Century to over 11% by 2018. This is a tremendous achievement and is probably one of the greatest Irish land use changes of modern times. However, if we consider it in the context of a longer time scale, we still only have a small percentage of the forest area that was originally in Ireland in the 17th Century, after which industrialisation, the plantations and the increase in population resulted in the massive clearance of these forests. A consequence of this ongoing clearance of forests was the loss of habitats and the associated plants and animals.

Our forest cover is still very low in comparison to the EU average of 42% of land area. Most of our private forests have been established since the 1990s and this means that the long tradition of forests and forestry practice that exists across Europe is largely absent here in Ireland. However our relatively young forests provide a very exciting opportunity for the forest owners, the surrounding rural communities and for Ireland as a whole. Generally these young private forests are quite productive and have the potential to provide additional rural jobs and added amenity value if properly managed and developed.

The forecast of Irish timber supply shows that the potential volume of wood coming onto the market is set to double by 2035, with practically all the increase coming from these private forests. While this is an exciting opportunity, it also presents a significant challenge.  With over 20,000 forest owners involved there is a logistical and infrastructural challenge as many have had no previous engagement with the timber-harvesting and timber-buying sectors. Wood processors have to date dealt with a small number of suppliers and now need to develop systems to handle this new, more diverse supply chain.

This also provides the opportunity for new wood-using industries to develop in rural areas. With increased interest in the potential of developing the bioeconomy this new timber supply that is coming on-stream may provide opportunities for exciting new forest-based products and services.

This additional timber supply and forest resource means that we have the opportunity to develop innovative uses and applications to suit Irish conditions and also add optimal value in the form of financial and non-financial benefits. EIP-AGRI has already supported this process and hopefully can continue to do so.

In the past few years I have been involved in two relevant EIP-AGRI initiatives:

The EIP-AGRI Focus Group on Wood Biomass Mobilisation provided excellent insight into the commonissues being faced across Europe in getting woody biomass from the forest to the end user. What was interesting for me were the approaches being taken and the solutions developed in different countries. That’s not to say that these solutions are directly transferrable to Irish conditions, but elements can be applied and adapted to help identify local innovative solutions.

In relation to the work of the focus group a number of experts from across the EU identified the success and fail factors for wood mobilisation and how these could be harnessed and addressed at local, regional, national and EU level. The potential of extension, digital technology, co-operation mechanisms, good-practice examples and incentives to increase mobilisation were among the topics discussed. A range of potential innovation and research actions, including Operational Groups, was proposed that would help advance these potential solutions.

TheEIP-AGRI Workshop on New Value Chains from Multifunctional Forests brought together a range of actors involved in and interested in developing new uses of our forests. The workshop served to open our minds to the limitless boundaries that forests have in relation to adding value. This potential was explored under the headings food, non-food, agro-forestry and recreational and leisure use. There are infinite opportunities ranging from niche markets including chickens and eggs marketed as woodland chickens to the use of forests for foraging for a range of aromatic plants. The tourism and recreation opportunities are also substantial.

New value chains have the opportunity to add significantly to our forests’ worth. There are opportunities and challenges in extracting this value and these were explored at the workshop and can be grouped under business development needs, co-operation needs, capacity building and policy and legislation issues. The potential of Operational Groups to progress such value chains was clear. This includes groups to test and develop new products, the implement forest management practices, product development and quality control and innovation in on-line platforms. The advancement of forest management practices and services to encourage tourism and recreation and to encourage environmental enhancements also provide opportunities along with the development of technology transfer to encourage business development.

Author Biography

Dr. Nuala Ní Fhlatharta is Head of the Teagasc Forestry Development Department. She is based in Athenry, Co. Galway. She has a degree in forestry from UCD and subsequently she went on to do a PhD on forest biomass and a Masters in Rural Development with NUIG. She has a keen interest in supporting the achievement of the potential that forests offer here in Ireland. She feels that the appropriate development of new and existing forests can contribute significantly to our environment and economy and can also provide a great recreational resource for rural communities and visitors.

The Teagasc Forestry Development Department provides research, advice, training and developmental support to forest owners and those considering forestry. This is provided in the context of whole farm planning and the establishment of forests that are sustainably developed and managed. Current research areas include ash, birch and alder tree improvement programmes, conifer and broadleaf silviculture and management and also some joint projects on the uses of Irish grown timber.

Teagasc Forestry webpage: https://www.teagasc.ie/forestry

Teagasc Forestry Twitter: @teagascforestry