Mr McIlroy wanted to make his beef cattle business operate more efficiently so he identified the parts of the land which were most difficult to farm and devoted them to growing native woodlands. He also wanted to enhance the environmental value of his holding and to create a legacy for the future.
He received grant aid from the Forest Service within DAERA through the EU funded Rural Development Programme to help with the costs of establishing woodland and is currently receiving an annual payment for 15 years to compensate him for agricultural income foregone.
The woodlands are currently nine years old and are growing well reflecting Mr McIlroy’s maintenance of the woodlands to make sure that the trees he planted have become established and that tree species suited to producing timber have had side branches removed to improve the quality of timber that can be harvested in the future. The bird life has noticeably improved.
Mr McIlroy is the seventh generation of farmers in his family on the farm in south Tyrone. The farm is around 87 hectares and mostly in a single block, with around 10ha consisting of outlying fields. Mr McIlroy manages a herd of 200 Aberdeen Angus Beef cattle.
Mr. McIlroy wanted to resolve the issue of managing the wet areas of the farm. He also considered the difficulty of crossing a busy minor public road moving cattle from the fields to the farm yard. With his interest in woodlands, converting these awkward areas of the farm to forestry provided an alternative. He also wanted to improve the biodiversity of the farm whilst getting some timber from the land in the form of fuelwood and logs He did not want to convert to a land use where he would have to commit himself to a lot of time and effort.
The site conditions were suitable to native broadleaf woodland. The land, although damp, is fertile, sheltered and low lying One woodland block was planted close to a river and the site suffers from periodic flooding and tree species were carefully selected to match the site conditions.
Mr McIlroy has always had an interest in woodlands, not only for their contribution to the environment, but also for timber and fuelwood. He did not want a woodland which would be labour intensive, but fully appreciated some management would be required to achieve his objectives.
Four blocks of woodland have been established successfully on areas of fertile lowland.
Activities to ensure successful establishment of the woodland included:
- fence repairs to ensure a stock proof boundary
- mounding – a form of ground preparation to provide a raised planting position in which to keep the immature roots of the young trees out of the high water table;
- planting 14,500 trees of seven different species and looking after them until year 5,
- weed control until the trees became established
- monitoring of the woodland for storm damage, livestock trespass and damage by new pests and disease.
All of these activities are eligible for grant support through the Forestry Grant Scheme and in addition to these payments Mr McIlroy is also eligible to claim an annual payment for 15 years which compensates him for agricultural income foregone.
The trees were planted at 2x2 metre spacing to provide Mr McIllroy with options to produce good quality timber and a small earlier income from starting to remove some trees after about 20 - 25 years before allowing the remaining trees to grow into large, mature good quality trees.
Biodiversity has been enhanced by following good practice in forest design. This has been achieved not only from the wide range of native species planted but by the careful use of open space within the woodland. In addition future management can manipulate the structure of the woodland increasing the range of habitat niches available to the local wildlife.
A major threat to the woodland arrived in Northern Ireland in 2012 when ash dieback disease was first found in recently planted woodlands. Mr McIllroy has not been affected by the tree disease to date and his ash is growing well. However, it is possible that he might be affected in future years and due to the wide range of trees species planted in 2007 he is fortunate to have a diverse and therefore fairly resilient woodland and losing some ash trees will not have a very significant effect on the productivity of his woodland.
Mr McIlroy now has a more efficient farm with woodland developing in the awkward and agriculturally limited areas. These new woodlands will enhance biodiversity, provide welcome shelter for animals in the adjacent fields, help to capture carbon to offset some of the pollution created by the farming activities, provide woodfuel for the family’s home and replacing some oil use for heating, diversify the farm’s income by providing potential future income in the form of firewood and timber sales. The woodlands provide a source of pleasure and recreation by providing a place to relax and unwind and also provide screening from local industrial buildings.
For the public, these woodlands have improved the biodiversity of the local area; they have contributed to improving the water quality of the stream and river in the vicinity of the woodlands through the interception of run-off from farming activities and soil stabilisation; they have enhanced the local landscape.
During the first five years of growth on three separate occasions, Mr McIlroy carried out “formative shaping” to improve stem quality for timber on trees which showed potential in terms of growth and form. These is also scope for harvesting the good quality ash for use in hurley manufacture from about 15 years old (just 6 years away for Mr McIllroy) and he is hoping that his ash will not be affected by ash dieback before he has an opportunity to sell to this market.
Mr McIIroy comments that ‘this wet land was troublesome and I decided to try something else. Now I’m able to look after the cattle on a smaller area and use my time more effectively to develop my business’.
From Mr. McIlroy’s perspective he has no regrets regarding his decision to create new woodlands and considers that he has achieved the benefits he expected.
His experience has made him realise that there are other small areas of the farm where native woodland would be beneficial, such as the steep areas which he regards as a potential Health and Safety hazard when carrying out farming activities. He aims to keep the best of his land to agriculture and considers it very unlikely that he will commit this to woodland.
He is keen to further improve the timber quality of the best trees and will be carrying out pruning operations over the next couple of years. He wants to maximise the potential of his woodland and intends to contact the “Hurley Guild” for management advice on producing quality hurley ash.
One third of the woodland component is Ash and difficulties may lie ahead due to the recent outbreak of ash die-back disease in Ireland. Currently Mr. McIlroy’s ash trees are healthy and are being monitored by the Department’s Plant Health team.
The bark has been stripped by grey squirrels on some of his oak trees. Between the ages of 10 and 30 years, smooth barked broadleaf tree species such as Sycamore, Norway maple, Beech and Oak may be vulnerable to damage by grey squirrels. One option is to control the numbers of grey squirrels and where damage is severe he may coppice small groups of Oak to allow stems to rejuvenate. Mr. McIlroy understands that regular inspections of his woodland are necessary to maintain the health and vigour of his woodland and to seek advice as necessary.
William really believes that he has created a legacy which can be passed onto the 8th generation of McIlroy farmers. To date he has obtained a deep sense of satisfaction and enjoyment from watching the small trees develop into young woodland and from his son using some of the produce for woodturning.