Lessons Learned

The Manch Project.

The First Ten Years: 2002 – 2012.

The INFF was formed in 2002 to research, demonstrate and promote economically, socially and environmentally sustainable forestry in Ireland. In 2006 INFF leased the 130 hectare Manch Estate in West Cork and began a programme of research projects on afforestation, sustainable woodland management, hedgerow establishment and management and biodiversity monitoring.

These notes are an anecdotal review of the work carried out by INFF during the first years with grants available for forestry. Formal data and observations collected at Manch from 2006 are currently being collated and analysed for publication.


The objective at Manch was to use current afforestation and woodland management grants to establish and restore mixed species woodlands for continuous cover management. The aim was to show that good design and regular management can yield optimum commercial gain for the landowner alongside strong biodiversity and habitat support.

To date 25 Ha of existing mature woodland has been restructured via the Native Woodland Conservation Scheme and other private funding. 50 Ha have been planted via the Afforestation and Native Woodland Establishment Schemes with other additional oak trials in place.

The Manch forestry trials team:

We worked to create a unique public/private/NGO partnership which includes INFF, the estate owner Matt O’Connor, the Forest Service and Green Belt Ltd.

We were fortunate to establish a working relationship with Green Belt’s CEO Tim O’Brien and local Green Belt forester Gerard Moroney. Tim was well aware of our campaigning and while he didn’t agree with some of our ideas, he was brave enough to agree to commit to supporting the project at Manch publicly. Since Tim’s untimely death we have established an equally productive relationship with Green Belt’s CEO John O’Reilly.

Without the support of Eugene Curran our local Forest Service inspector, none of the work at Manch would have been possible. His work on the project has often put him in a difficult and unenviable position and we are extremely grateful for his help.

INFF’s agreement with landowner Matt O’Connor was to maximise his possible return utilising the current grants. We acknowledged that this meant occasionally accepting terms and conditions that, in our opinion, did not represent the best silvicultural practice.

The opinions and conclusions in these notes are INFF’s and while we work closely with Green Belt, the Forest Service and several other organisations, we don’t expect them to agree with all we have stated here.

INFF relies on private donations to support campaign work and much of the administration necessary to develop the Manch project, but the financial input from Green Belt, the Forest Service and LEADER to develop the infrastructure at Manch has been essential to the success of the project.

With the help of the team above, it was decided to make two sets of grant applications to the Forest Service. The first applications were for afforestation work via the Afforestation & Native Woodland Establishment Schemes. The second applications for woodland restoration and management work via the Native Woodland Conservation Scheme.

Native Woodland Establishment and Afforestation Schemes.

The successful proposal we put to the Forest Service was to plant some Afforestation and some Native Woodland Establishment Scheme plots as appropriate to each area, using oak and beech grants and premiums to establish mixed woodland designed for continuous cover management.

INFF has always campaigned against monocultures. “Nature doesn’t do monocultures”. The largest grant and premium was, and unfortunately still is, for a monoculture of oak or beech.

We argued that our proposed planting plans would eventually become oak and beech woodland. The inclusion of a lower percentage of oak/beech and a higher percentage of other species initially had far more benefits than a wasteful monoculture of 3,300 oak/beech stems per hectare when the expectation is an approximate mature density of approximately 120 stems per hectare.

Apart from the wastage of oak and beech, our arguments against planting a monoculture and adding a greater diversity of species included:

  • A better risk strategy in the face of climate change

  • Reduced likelihood and severity of damage from pests and disease

  • Reduced risk of provenance failure

  • Woodland retains its amenity value throughout an ongoing cycle of management of different species at different times

  • Future management would be less disruptive to habitat

  • Greater diversity of timber and materials than pure oak or beech

Objections to this system were:

  • Higher establishment costs due to more complex planting regime

  • Uncertainty of financial returns

  • That the auditors would not accept the work done

In the end we got permission to go ahead and work began.

Ground Preparation:

We utilised two basic planting systems both based on the idea of having groups of 9 oaks or beeches (primary species) at 10 metre spacing in either a matrix of other species or in a shelterwell system.

To illustrate our challenge of the traditional drains and mounding we opted for inverted mounding. Standard mounding and drainage proved to be a solution for planting shallow rooted Sitka Spruce on unenclosed land, however, it is inappropriate for many sites as afforestation moves onto better land. Where it is used it should not be used as a blanket prescription for the whole site, and it is essential to design a specific water management plan for every site.

Many sites we have been involved in did not need drains. We feel that the biodiversity potential of afforestation sites is compromised by putting in drains and taking all the water off a site. Water is one of the most important elements for biodiversity. The afforestation guidelines recommend creating small ponds. Unfortunately there still seems to be an obsession with draining all the water off sites. The FS should insist that ponds be created where possible.

The COFORD oak provenance trials later established by Derek Felton at Manch were planted using an auger. It’s the favoured planting method in a lot of Europe. This seems far more appropriate as it avoids large machinery on the ground, gives more accurate spacing and makes for ease of planting and future management.

At Manch the ground preparation could have been done with a McClarity mole plough or with an auger. A new problem to be addressed on enclosed land is the hard pan from mechanical cultivation of arable fields. The inverted mounding breaks through this pan bringing up minerals and allowing drainage and was considered the best compromise at Manch for the afforestation scheme areas.

The Tree Planting Work:

We paid the planters a day rate as against the norm of a piece rate. The trees are going to be in the ground for a long time and we felt that more time spent planting carefully will be cost effective in the long run.

Initial planting work was slow as our planting designs were far more complex than is usual. The planting of the matrix sites proved easy once a system was established and the planting of the shelterwell sites was easier again once the concept and pattern was understood.

In order to satisfy the auditors for the full afforestation grant payment, we were obliged to plant 15 of each primary species (oak or beech) in the matrix where we had planned to plant 9. This resulted in having to fit in extra pit-planted trees amongst the mounds already set and caused difficulties later on with access for cleaning, monitoring and other maintenance work.

Availability of plants:

The species lists for the NWE scheme look great, however in practice it’s a very different story: because of the shortage of variety of certified native provenance trees available landowners are having to plant virtual monocultures.

At Manch we had a wonderful opportunity to plant a mixed native riparian woodland, but we had to settle for 3 species – Ash, birch and alder. No hazel, no spindle, no holly, no guelder rose, no oak! We assume many other landowners have had to settle for such sad compromises.

Had we known of the shortage of plants we would have fared better using the afforestation grant in these areas as it allows for other provenances. Better still we would have delayed planting and not prepared the ground until plants were available. Once the ground was mounded it was impossible for the owner to let the ground for grazing and so planting needed to go ahead to avoid losing income.

We had hoped to get the NWE oak grant, however as there were no oaks available we were advised that we would have to plant birch where we had planned to plant oak and pull it up the next year and replace with available oak. We were told that for auditing reasons it was not an option to leave the oak spaces unplanted.

The following year the 9,000 native birches were well established and far too strong to pull up. We were told we still had to cut off the birches and plant oaks. The oaks were very small; 15-18cms so we had to put them in tubes. Needless to say the birches responded to cutting by growing back piously and have all had to be cut again.

There was no extra funding to cover cost of tubes or the labour involved and we didn’t get the oak grant in the end anyway. We wonder whether the auditors really would prefer such criminal wastage or whether there should be some mechanism to leave spaces until the right trees are available.

Initial Performance:

The initial performance of a lot of the planting was disappointing. The Forest Service inspectors insisted we should spot spray around the trees with glyphosate and spray Garlon on brushwood to control the regenerating willow.

Chemical control is not our policy and it seemed totally irresponsible to spray glyphosate or Garlon on a site prone to flash flooding. We challenged the FS decision on the grounds that the trees performing badly had the lowest vegetation around them which suggested it was not the competing vegetation inhibiting growth.

We agreed in the end to compromise and to run trials where some areas are sprayed and others are left un-sprayed.

Further investigation:

On a subsequent visit by COFORD, simple tests with an auger proved that some of the trees performing badly had been planted on beds of gravel deposited as the river had travelled across the flood plain.

Visiting European foresters to Manch have been shocked that the schemes do not insist on soil tests to determine species selection and suitability to plant and that we rely on a blanket prescription to spray if trees are performing badly.

Our own additional observation is that trees of the same provenance are doing far better on old grassland than on the arable fields. We suspect this is due to the damaged soil structure and content from years of intensive management and a lack of mycrorrhizas needed for the trees to establish and thrive.

We hope to observe a change as the land is improved by successive leaf falls and periodic flooding that will see these trees eventually flourish. At the time of writing they are already showing signs of picking up.

We recommend that the Forest Service reconsider their expectations for broadleaf trees to year five on arable land and other sites to account for the markedly slower establishment of broadleaves on poorer sites. Currently the requirement for all broadleaf sites to show a commercial quality of growth by year five is putting both foresters and landowners off planting broadleaves and is seeing slow-growing sites fail inspections and lose grant aid and premiums.

Weeding and mowing:

We have found that the quad and rotary mower is very effective for controlling really invasive species like regenerating willow, however this only works on reasonable terrain and the site has to be designed to allow space between rows and space to turn the mower. Manual cleaning between the trees is still required.

Mowing encourages grass undergrowth and we are aware of the arguments for spraying and killing-off that growth to support tree establishment by reducing competition for nutrients. However with good manual cleaning and mowing at the end of the growing season, a balance can be found without the need for spraying.

There is a school of thought that encourages grass and weeds as a natural shelter and protection for young trees. While the trees are small and in competition with undergrowth, they stall in their top-growth, staying under the shelter of the weeds and put down deeper roots to find nutrients and water below the weed root level.

Once a deeper root system is established the trees can access what they need for strong growth above the soil and will quickly take over from and shade out the weeds. Brambles, nettles, docks and thistles are also arguably far more effective than any fence or guard at protecting young trees against browsing animals. INFF has started trialling this system in planting projects and will publish the findings as data becomes available.


By far the most striking observation from the afforestation trials is the difference between the growth of native and non-native provenance trees at Manch. Trees of native provenance initially appear to have established more quickly and robustly than trees of other provenances.

The importance of provenance has been acknowledged for many years throughout Europe, however Ireland has been slow to embrace local provenance with European provenances of many species frequently being used for both afforestation and reforestation.

Ireland has a limited selection of quality seed stands, especially for native trees, but with consistent support for native provenance planting, nurseries would have a clearer incentive to work on selection and collection of a wider variety of native seed for planting and for improvement. Ireland has made great progress on Irish provenance Sitka Spruce, but until recently work on other species has been sadly neglected.

It seems grossly unfair on the farmer who has the courage to plant hardwoods to be supplied with trees of unsuitable provenance and poorly adapted to Irish conditions, or to have approval to plant and not to be able to source the appropriate trees. We suggest that farmers planting hardwoods insist on native provenance where possible when using the afforestation grants.

NWS Riparian Planting:

Riparian Planting is very much overlooked in the establishment of trees and woodlands in Ireland. We aimed to demonstrate a variety of riparian planting techniques, to maximise biodiversity and habitat support along the river and to provide valuable research material for future riparian work.

After detailed discussions with SW Fisheries and the Forest Service we planted a variety of plots, some were planted right to the riverbank, others at varying densities and some areas left unplanted.

The riparian planting at Manch has triggered some very productive debate amongst the team and visiting parties and is proving a great resource for our education programme and research projects.

The Native Woodland Conservation Scheme:

Despite having reservations INFF and Green Belt decided to apply for the NWC scheme to cover work done on the existing mature woodlands at Manch; the decision was commercial as INFF’s agreement with the landowner was to maximise the possible return utilising the current grants.

It has to be assumed that the majority of woodland owners make the same decision, because it is the only management grant available with a premium. The initial demand from landowners proved there was both demand and interest in enhancing existing woodlands and planting mixed species for sustainable forests, however we meet more and more landowners who are disillusioned with the NWC scheme, not least because of the stop/start nature of the funding. There are also very few Forestry contractors happy to work with the grant.

We accept there is a place for the NWC scheme on a few specific sites, however we have still to meet a forest owner who approves or understands the approach that all alien species have to be removed. Whilst it is acceptable to remove the more invasive species such as laurel, rhododendron and knotweed, the removal of beech, sycamore, sweet chestnut and lime seems criminal in a country so short of mature broadleaf trees. Fortunately the term “feature tree” has been introduced for NWC which saves many beautiful mature non-native beeches, limes and others for future generations.

Our suggestion is that a premium be added to the Woodland Improvement Scheme to bring the two management schemes in line with each other and provide equal incentive to manage both native and non-native woodlands rather than trying to force a mixed woodland into the native category in order to avail of a premium.

Restructuring work:

The initial work to remove non-native, invasive, dangerous or diseased trees was easy enough but the debate started when deciding on the scale of the coups.

With felling decisions for NWC based on tree species, it proved hard to get a licence that allowed for felling oak while beech and sycamore still existed. This meant that coups could not be created in the optimum position or of an appropriate scale to ensure enough light for successful establishment of younger trees.

When coups cannot be designed, the area of open canopy necessary to establish oak cannot be created and it fails regardless of planting density. With the grant dictating both the density of underplanting and the percentage of oaks to be planted, there is huge waste of the very limited supply of native oaks.

It is essential to have felling plans designed to restore the woodland as necessary to create coups of the right size. It is unrealistic to rely on windblow or felling alien species only to open suitable coups for replanting.


At Manch, the removal of laurel devoured the majority of the NWC grant.

The payment structure of the NWC is determined by the area of work done. This means that if 25% of the site is covered in laurel and is going to use 75% of the funding, payment will not be made until 75% of the site has been finished. Most contractors need to be paid as soon as possible and so doing the bulk of the work in the first year is favoured in order to draw down enough grant aid to pay all the bills. This leads to aggressive work on old woodlands which damages habitat and disrupts the ecosystems that the NWC is designed to protect.

The recommendations in the guidelines are to leave the laurel in windrows in the woodland. This was an impossible scenario, the volume of tops was such that there would have been no room for underplanting and it would have allowed regeneration of laurel under all the brash.

The tops were eventually extracted at great expense to clear space for planting. Our intention was to burn them, but while the wildlife act states that burning is legal until 1st March, when we checked with the EPA they insisted the burning was against the law. Under pressure to clear the fields of brash we paid a small fortune to chip the laurel and were left with large volume of toxic wood chip. There must be better alternatives available with modern chippers and new biomass projects seeking material.


The NWC scheme states that it is designed to enhance biodiversity and provides no encouragement for the farmer to extract commercial timber and therefore no encouragement for the development of a market for native hardwoods.

One of the most damaging effects of the NWC scheme is its assumption that biodiversity support should somehow exclude the possibility of an income to the landowner. The commercial potential of old woodlands can usually be realised in tandem with enhancing and protecting biodiversity and habitats.

To challenge the message that managing mature mixed woodlands for a commercial return is financially unrewarding, INFF raised private funding to extract and process timber from the estate.

We have used several different extraction methods including horses and have experimented with the processing and sale of different materials from the woodland. We have found a very healthy interest in native hardwoods ranging from large structural beams to timber for boat building and furniture making and firewood is always a strong potential income.

We will publish our findings based on records of expenditure and income from the mature woodlands including the NWC grant and premium contributions as they become available. We are confident that a sustainable income can be derived from the management of these old woods although we are sure there are better ways to apply grants than the current NWC scheme permits.


INFF advocates hedgerow planting as an essential element of afforestation work. A hedgerow planted around a new plantation of trees provides protection, a valuable future boundary and an additional habitat for flora and fauna at the woodland edge.

The current afforestation scheme guidelines recommend gap planting and layering to rejuvenate declining hedgerows, however we have yet to meet a contractor who has planted a hedgerow as part of the schemes.

The current practice of planting two rows of sacrificial broadleaves around a conifer plantation is a waste of good trees and allows for a distortion of annual broadleaf planting figures when audited. These trees often die off during the life of the plantation or are left inappropriately exposed and damaged by clearfell operations.

Broadleaves included in conifer plantations should be planted appropriately and managed as a part of the plantation. Hedgerows should be established at appropriate boundaries in addition to broadleaves within the plantation.

If hedgerow establishment is included in the site preparation it is very cost effective; soil from roads, drains and firebreaks can be used for banked boundary ditches ideal for hedgerow planting. Even if the hedge has very little maintenance it will provide an important linear habitat along the wooodland edge. At clearfell a hedgerow can help to mitigate the loss of habitat and environmental damage and help provide a screen for the apocalyptic sights that accompany clearfelling work.

We have established and worked up several different demonstration hedges at Manch. With proper planting and maintenance, including regular laying, a hedge can be stock proof in as little as five years. These demonstrations are always of great interest to visiting landowners and are a brilliant resource for training courses and ongoing research.

There are now options to establish hedgerows under agri–environment schemes, however, we would like to see hedgerow establishment and maintenance given more formal and practical inclusion in the afforestation schemes.

Oak provenance and progeny trials:

Manch is the location of one of three national oak trials put in place in 2006. The trials are funded by COFORD under the Forest R&D Programme 2000-2006 and have been developed by Woodstock Seeds in partnership with Coillte.

The purpose of the trials is to compare the growth rates and characteristics of different oaks with a view to selectively improving the Irish oak resource. The trials are long term – to gain meaningful comparative information requires up to one quarter of the rotation of the crop (120 years).

There are both Provenance and progeny trials in place at Manch. To read more please click here.

Management of roadside trees on the Manch Estate:

The mature trees that border the Manch Estate for a mile along the R586 between Bandon and Dunmanway have the effect of creating a spectacular ‘entrance tunnel’ to West Cork. Roadside trees however are perceived to be a danger to traffic by councils throughout the country and the roadside trees at Manch were considered a problem with little consideration of their importance as a historical feature in the local landscape.

INFF was keen to explore possibilities other than the conventional solution of felling. We took a full inventory of the trees (part funded by the Forest Service), assessing their individual condition and the threats that they present. Based on the results of this inventory a strategy and work plan was instigated in conjunction with Cork County Council.

The first stage of the programme was very successful with the council diverting traffic and helping with work on the ground. Unfortunately the council returned to the site at a later date and carried out further work resulting in damage to the trees and the removal of limbs from trees we had agreed to protect, this undid the careful work done and abruptly ended the collaborative work we had hoped to do with the council on these trees.

With good communication and cooperation it should be possible to save many roadside trees currently under threat around the country, but clearly there is a long way to go!


We get many calls from frustrated landowners around the country looking for advice as to how they can get grants to plant and manage hardwoods. We explain that the decision is based very much on the forester they have chosen and the local forestry inspector. The Irish afforestation maps show that it is personalities rather than soil type that dictate where hardwoods are being planted. The planting figures for Cork illustrate that with the right forester and a positive message about hardwoods, the percentage of broadleaves planted increases.

We are aware that the performance of the trees is an important factor in farmers choosing to plant; they are put off when they see poor growth from hardwoods and hear of sites failing inspections in the fifth year and losing grants. Provenance and diversity of available species are important and there is an urgent need to increase the consistency of supply.

With the current financial climate, funding restrictions and the Forest Service choosing not to avail of EU funds, it is essential that there is an immediate reappraisal of all grants by an independent forester/forestry group is necessary. Ireland must create and manage truly sustainable forests that are commercially viable yet robust and diverse enough to cope with the challenges of climate change for future generations. Part of the perceived problem with establishing hardwood forestry in Ireland is the lack of research into its commercial viability as a timber crop.

Without any doubt the afforestation trials at Manch have been a success on many levels; trees are established and grown up over our heads at all the plots and even those areas that initially struggled have shown strong growth in the last year or two. The variety of flora and fauna that have colonised the young woodlands is extraordinary and the general good health of the trees is apparent.

We have also made plenty of mistakes! Some of the demonstration plots were not put together well and monitoring has been difficult. Had we been able to plant trees with an auger at the original design spacings, the plots would be more accurately planted and accessible maintenance, research and demonstration purposes.

Many of the problems met were caused by needing to satisfy inappropriate grant criteria rather than working with purely silvicultural decisions. From the feedback we have had over the years, more appropriate grants for truly sustainable afforestation would make more land available for planting.

The next chapter of work at Manch includes collating and analysing the data collected on the trials so far. We will begin the mammoth task of thinning the new woodlands as well as keeping up with the restructuring and restoration work in the mature woods.

Ian Wright – Chair of the Board of Directors