Ireland’s forestry industry comes together to meet Brexit challenge

Ireland plants almost 30 million trees a year, or 80,000 trees a day.

The country’s forest and timber companies have competed very successfully against each other for many years, but since its biggest export market is the UK, Brexit has acted as a catalyst to bring the industry together to meet the challenge.

Forest Industries Ireland, the new trade association for the forestry and timber industries, has been officially launched today. FII is a new business sector within Ibec, the national business organisation. Almost all the major forestry and timber companies in Ireland are members of Forest Industries Ireland. They are drawn from across the industry and include all the largest timber processors as well as companies involved in the establishment and management of forests.

Mark McCauley, Director, Forestries Industries Ireland, said the industry is now maturing, with 21,000 forest owners all over the country. “The trees that they have been growing over the last 40 years are now reaching maturity, so there is huge growth in supply from the private forest estate, and that requires a bit more coordination.”

The industry is forecasting major growth in the coming years as the supply of raw material from Irish forests will double in the period 2017-2035. It estimates that it will double the industry’s combined turnover from €800 million today to €1.6 billion in that time.

Brian Murphy, Chief Executive of Balcas, a timber and renewable energy producer, based in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. Balcas processes a million tonnes of trees from Ireland and Scotland every year.

“We make sawn timber which we export to Great Britain, and we also make renewable energy. We take the sawn timber out of the tree first, then you are left with bark and saw dust and woodchip,” Mr Murphy explained. “We burn some of that, and we generate enough electricity for all of the houses in Fermanagh and Tyrone. Using the heat left over from the electricity-making process, we dry more sawmill residue and make them into pellets, which in turn displaces fossil fuels to provide heat to people’s homes.”

Mr Murphy, who is the inaugural Chairman of Forest Industries Ireland, said the industry is “hugely sustainable”. “The ingredients for our industry are sun, carbon dioxide, rain and land, and it just repeats and repeats. The timber is a crop that is managed very carefully to maximise the volume of timber that is being used on the land, and to maximise the environmental benefit for the grower and the people of Ireland.”

The forest cover in Ireland was 1% at the time of Independence, it’s now 11% – still far short of the European average which is 33%. The tree most commonly grown is Sitka Spruce, and 30% of the trees grown by Coillte are broadleaf.

Britain will always be the industry’s largest market because they are the second largest net importer of timber in the world. Britain is on our doorstep and the industry produces a heavy product.

Fergal Leamy, Chief Executive of Coillte, which manages 51% of the land that is under forestry, said the industry has come together to meet the Brexit challenge.

“Tarriffs are not the big issue for us. There is zero per cent tarriffs on timber products, 7% on MDF,” he said. “The biggest issue for us is being sure that we can get our product to our customers. Some people think about timber and say, ‘Well it’s not a problem, it’s not perishable’, but our customers need that product quickly.”

Forest Industries Ireland is working with Government, Revenue, Customs, to make sure that those flows continue. “To be fair, we have an awful lot of preparation done to ensure that we can do that,” Mr Leamy said.

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