Without a clearly defined strategic approach to forest research and an informed understanding of the value of our forests to society, both they and the infrastructure surrounding them will disappear.

The loss of this vital strategic industry would be an economic and environmental tragedy.

This article aims to review the current state of forest research in this context.

The Society of Irish Foresters, the sector’s professional body, has long been an ardent advocate of forest research. It has published peer reviewed projects and technical commentary in its journal; and has facilitated knowledge transfer through seminars, lectures, field excursions and professional refresher programmes.

To understand where forest research now stands, a brief review of its background is useful. A research branch, charged with providing scientific backup for the rapidly expanding forests, was established in 1957.

Over the years, valuable expertise was built up especially in species selection, genetics, crop establishment, management and protection and conservation of native forests, plants, animals and habitats.

Outputs comprised internal reports and published papers, surveys, field experiments and demonstrations, which focused on the main species in the forest estate and on diversity and conservation. The branch earned wide international recognition.

As technical information matured, growth and economic models were added.

The inventories recorded the composition of the forest estate with forecasts of timber production by component to support industrial investment.

At this time also, the then Institute of Industrial Research and Standards developed a timber strength, grading and testing programme, preservation and drying studies, which eventually led to an Irish Timber Standard and acceptance of spruce in building construction.


However, the picture began to change during the 1990s following the transfer of research branch to Coillte. Wildlife moved to the OPW initially and, later, the Department of the Environment.

Coillte began to confine research to its main areas of concern. Soon, forest research was left to short-term EU-funded postgraduate projects, while health monitoring and some field trials remained in the Department.

Establishment of the Council for Forest Research and Development (COFORD) temporarily arrested the decline.

Though short term in nature, it fulfilled contemporary needs. In 1996 government policy, Growing for the Future, gave a strong commitment to forest research and inventory investment with five-year reviews. However, COFORD was reconstituted as a mainly advisory committee and minor programme of the Department research budget (COFORD).

The Forestry Act (2014) contains just one reference to forest research, while extensively referencing a plethora of acts and regulations, which curtail forest development. A policy document entitled Forests Products and People was largely aspirational.

There is no mention of a unified research centre or funding mechanism as lobbied for over 10 years

The much-vaunted strategic plan, following the licensing crisis and collapse of the planting programme from 2018 and the critical Mackinnon Review became mired in the EU’s DG 11.

There is no mention of a unified research centre or funding mechanism as lobbied for over 10 years. Knowledge transfer through COFORD Connects has largely dried up since 2018. Apart from a few good, independent reports on forests and carbon, Irish Forestry, Journal of the Society of Irish Foresters, has been left to fill the gap.

What should be done?

A multiannual funded, co-ordinated research programme and a research centre are critical if the future of our forest estate is not to be determined by the uninformed opinion of vested interest groups. Good science must shape the future of our forests.

Society of Irish Foresters recommendations

  • Maintain scientific expertise through research career opportunities.
  • Effective transfer of findings and rapid response to disease and insect threats.
  • A resource of long-term trials to evaluate emerging silvicultural systems and environmental impacts, especially for new tree species/site combinations.
  • An improved understanding of the role of forests in carbon capture and sustainability.
  • A redefining of land use and forests and their likely outcomes
  • Development and testing of innovative wood construction.
  • Establishment of an independent umbrella body to fund forest research and promote forest products.
  • Dr Gerhardt Gallagher, Society of Irish Foresters.

    Dr Gerhardt Gallagher has worked in the Forest Service and as a private forestry consultant specialising in forest research, carbon accounting and forest policy.

    Time to sell – €25,000/ha for clearfells

    While it is difficult to determine timber prices at the moment, there has been strong demand for small logs over the past two years. This means that there is little excuse for not thinning your plantation right now. While demand for large sawlog has been sluggish, this is changing.

    Up to now, many farmers with felling licences have held on to them in the expectation that prices will increase. At some stage, farmers will need to sell. Holding on to spruce plantations indefinitely is bad policy unless thinning are carried out and unless the crop is in a sheltered area and not vulnerable to storm damage.

    A fully mature spruce crop – aged over 30 years – may be carrying a total volume of 400m3/ha and more. If it is accessible, well formed and over yield class 20 (m3 ha/annum) it should achieve an average price of €65/ha to €75/ha standing based on 70% sawlog.

    Factor in work by a forestry consultant for measurement, administration and marketing, the owner of a well-managed spruce forest should receive at least €25,000/ha.

    The forester and forest owner should work together to ensure the best return. For example, the sale should be advertised to at least three sawmills.

    Timber can be sold standing or roadside but, unless you are fully familiar with your sale options, it’s important to receive guidance from a fully qualified forester.

    A contract must be in place and agreed before any work begins. It is vital that you are fully informed about harvesting and the eventual replanting which follows.

    Take Dr Olive Leavy’s advice: know what you have; be involved in the management of your forest; get independent advice; and join a forest owner group. Remember, 10ha of good-quality spruce is worth €250,000 or €220,000 after replanting costs.