Peter Wilson is an architect, writer, critic and Managing Director of Timber Design Initiatives Ltd. He has written this fascinating update on the forest industries sector in Ireland.  If Ireland can bring about such a dramatic change in their forest sector, it begs the question, what could we do here in Wales?

Collite logo. Simple triangular green tree and strap line "grow, transform, sustain"Coillte is one of those strange Old Irish words that non-speakers of the language have some difficulty pronouncing but which simply means woods or forests. To describe the company that nowadays bears this name as simply being in the forestry industry would, however, be to do it a major disservice, since this ambitious organisation has several strings to its bow and has made significant advances in recent years aimed at delivering its corporate vision to become the best Forestry and Land Solutions company in Europe by 2025. To outsiders, this may seem a touch hubristic, given that it is custodian to only 7% of Ireland’s landmass, but this represents an area of forest and landscape that now extends to around 445,000 hectares and upon which it operates three strong, autonomous business divisions: its core forestry activities, its MEDITE®/SMARTPLY® wood panels manufacturing business and its land solutions division that also includes a very successful range of renewable energy projects.

Areal view of forested landscape in Ireland

Background to Rapid Expansion

Some history is useful at this point: only 1% of Ireland was forested in 1900, yet the country now has 11.5% forest cover, the result mainly of considerable planting in the 1970s and ‘80s, but also from an ongoing reforesting programme by Coillte that saw 17 million trees planted in 2016 (covering some 7700 hectares) and an additional 19.5 million (over 8000 hectares) in 2017 which, according to Des O’Toole, Coillte’s Market Development Manager, is the highest quantity for over 10 years. It is little wonder, then, that Ireland’s forest industry is projected to almost double in size over the next decade (from 3.4 million cubic metres to around 6 million annually), or that 50-60% of its output is destined for export. This latter statistic is also of note since the country exported little of its forest output, or indeed any timber products, prior to 2007-8, a cataclysmic period for the global economy. The decision was made then that the industry should view Ireland and the UK as one market (since product certification is as one in both jurisdictions) and give greater focus to trade with its nearest neighbour.

Forested landscape in Ireland

Investment Strategies

Key strategic investments in new, leading-edge technologies have been central to Coillte’s ‘connected forest’ vision, a primary example being the significant technology deal agreed with Treemetrics and aimed at revolutionising the way forest harvesting operations are managed by providing real-time satellite communications and data analytics to improve strategic decision making. 2018 has seen the company deploy what it describes as its ‘innovative, world class Forest Management System (FMS)’ designed to improve the effectiveness of its forestry operations and allow Coillte to unlock maximum value from its forestry and land estate. Critically, the introduction of these innovations is intended to increase the company’s production capabilities and guarantee security of supply to its customers, thereby giving them the confidence to invest further and expand their own processing capacity as they continue to grow their presence in export markets.

An estimated 40,000 truck movements now take place each year between Ireland and the UK but it is not all one-way traffic however: a reciprocal arrangement means that some Irish logs go for processing in Scottish sawmills, whilst a proportion of Scottish logs are sent to Ireland, where eight private sector mills of significant size are in operation, plus another three that produce panel boards. One particularly enterprising Irish company well known throughout the industry – Glennon Bros. – operates in both markets, with two sawmills in Ireland and two in Scotland.

Brexit and Forestry in Ireland

Not all is sunshine and light penetrating the canopies of Irish forests, though, since the elephant in the room – the continuing uncertainty generated by the UK’s decision to Brexit the EU – registers high on Coillte’s list of potential threats, posing as it does significant challenges for the future of an Irish forestry sector that supports some 12000 rural-based jobs and contributes approximately €2.3 billion to the country’s economy each year. A SWOT analysis is only as good as the actions that result from it, however, and Coillte was hardly sloth-like in setting up a Timber Industry Brexit Forum in which, working closely with key industry stakeholders, a number of initiatives have been progressed to minimise the potential impact of Brexit, including the preparation draft guidelines for the trade of timber post 29 March 2019. Major challenges unquestionably lie ahead but, given Coillte’s very focused development to date and its strong economic performance, the company would seem to have the talent, experience and determination to overcome them and continue to follow its own, so far very successful, game plan.