The strain on global timber supply has been well documented – not least in this edition of TTJ – but one country for which it has reached a critical point is Ireland, where delays hearing felling licence appeals has left some sawmillers resorting to importing timber from Europe and others to cutting production.

The problem is on such a scale that it is regularly covered in the Irish national press and is widely viewed in the sector as being more of an issue for business than Covid-19 and certainly more than Brexit.

“The Irish timber sector was held back a bit by Covid but an awful lot more by the felling licence problems,” said a major sawmiller.

The issue, which was flagged up in TTJ’s last market report on Ireland (TTJ April) stems from forestry legislation, which has been in place for a couple of years, that leaves the door open for “serial objectors” to appeal felling licences. In early October Coillte estimated that almost 80% of licences were being appealed.

Appeals against forestry licenses have risen from 14 in 2018 to 489 in 2019. This year, more than 400 had been appealed by the end of September.

The majority of appeals are rejected by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) but the backlog of unprocessed appeals has become enormous, with some of them taking up to 18 months to be heard. The Irish Farmers Association estimates that there is over 1 million m3 of wood held up in what is quite literally a log jam.

It’s important to note that this issue affects the private growers as much as Coillte and that it doesn’t just apply to harvesting but also impacts afforestation.

There is a concern that private growers will retreat from the market, finding the bureaucracy and return on investment delays too much, although with timber in such demand and log prices so high, they may stick with it.

Emergency legislation passed by the Irish government at the end of September was designed to speed up the appeals process by dint of recruiting more personnel, by allowing appeals to be heard without the FAC chairman present at every sitting, and for multiple appeals to be heard at one time. In addition, whereas appealing used to be free – leading to “blanket appeals” – there is now a charge of €200 per appeal (the licence submission fee is €20).

Speaking to TTJ immediately after the legislation had been passed, a Coillte spokesperson said that prior to the emergency legislation, it was “at the point where it was going to be difficult for us to bring timber to market for the rest of this year and we would have challenges going into Q1 next year.

“We were heading towards a situation where we had sawmills, contractors, harvesters and ourselves out of business,” said the spokesperson. “The same applies on the afforestation side –we have had a lot of nurseries this year that have had to destroy plants because of appeals against them.

“The legislation came at a critical point for us and we have been working very hard for a long time to get some changes, so we’re very pleased with that – but we are really dependent on speed right now. I have no doubt that the Department of Agriculture and the FAC will do what they say they will, but we need them to do it right now.

“We would normally hold our annual contract event in October but we haven’t been able to do it this year because we don’t have licenced material to put on it. We are going to hold an event at some stage before Christmas but it is unlikely to be in its normal format.”

Coillte estimates that it will have brought 15% less volume to market by the end of this year compared to 2019 “but “could see how we could be back to a normal position by the end of Q1, 2021.”

Since that conversation and other interviews with Ireland’s timber processors it seems that the speed that was hoped for is sorely lacking.

Forest Industries Ireland (FII) has said there is “zero evidence” that the Department of Agriculture will clear the backlog by January, as it had promised to do. Speaking to the Irish Times, FII said “The department’s output is a fraction of its own project plan. The current approach and performance can only be described as dysfunctional and leaves the industry hanging on by a thread”.

The Irish Times also reported that a major sawmill had cut production by 20% in October as raw material supplies shrank and that it was now faced with the choice of cutting production further and not supplying its customers, or importing timber.

Another major sawmill had reduced operations from five to four days and was expecting to go to three-day and even two day weeks.

As reported in the same newspaper, at least one major mill has already gone down the route of importing. GP Wood imported 100 truckloads – 4,500m3 – of timber from Germany and the Benelux countries in the first week of October.

The timber was destined for Ireland’s construction sector and the company has a further five shipments booked between now and February next year.

Strong Demand

The terrible irony is, of course, that following the Covid lockdown period, business has been incredibly brisk.

One fencing and pallet specialist reported cutting three hours of production off a day for the months of March, April and the early part of May and diverting quite a lot of that production into pallet wood.

“We came back fully at the end of May and, in the meantime, fencing went mad – and that has continued to this day.

“We’re probably going to have a good year and will all have worked extremely hard, but we’ll be down on last year because we can’t replace the 2,000-3,000m3 we didn’t cut.

There aren’t enough hours in the day. A good result this year will probably be to hit your budget or break even.”

He added that, given how things looked back in March, they were “in a fantastic position”.

Another medium-sized sawmill said they hadn’t closed at all as they were deemed to provide an essential service.

“We’ve been ok with social distancing because our buildings are well ventilated and we’ve been able to continue as normal,” said the sawmiller, adding that the pandemic had “left us very busy because of the rush to do garden improvements both here and in the UK”.

“We are exporting more to the UK and demand is brisk,” he continued. “We don’t see any slowdown in the immediate future.

There is a general shortage of all types of timber products.”

He added, however, that log availability is “a constant worry” and that he’s seeing fewer large diameter logs as suppliers try to maximise the output from their forests. Production hours are normal but he’s getting less out of them than he wants due to the reduced log diameter.

“This is leaving shortages in 125mm featheredge sections, for example,” he said.

Another fencing and pallet mill also stayed open and hadn’t found the Covid restrictions difficult to cope with, thanks to the size of its site. This mill also reported that fencing demand had grown “dramatically”, was still “really busy” and expected this to continue “right into January”.

“Every mill has probably got November and December sold,” said another contact. “And if it doesn’t go out of the mill in December it will have been sold to go out in the first week of January. The net result is no stock coming into January.”

According to one Irish sawmiller, a large fencing manufacturer in the UK would only have a third of the stock in January that it would normally have for that month.

“I was speaking to a big shed manufacturer who is putting a five-figure sum of sheds down on the ground every week and they have no stock,” he added.

One major sawmiller reported that it hadn’t taken any production out during the lockdown period, other than three days compulsory holiday around Easter. It didn’t furlough any staff, other than a handful who requested it for shielding purposes, and traded throughout.

It had some hairy moments early doors, however, including occasions when UK customers had closed their yards and expected the sawmill to “repatriate” trailers of timber back across the Irish Sea.


“We produce around 300,000m3 of timber so at any one time there is 2,000-3,000m3 on the road. We had some customers who were struggling to know what to do and said they couldn’t open their yards [to receive the timber] and sent the timber back. We took that on the chin and kept going and made preliminary commitments to hire some extra storage space – but we didn’t need to take that on.”

The company had been sitting on high stocks at the beginning of the year and while the early part of 2020 was “certainly suppressed”, the pent-up demand that was created by the early days of the pandemic lockdown meant that when, on May 19, the restrictions were eased, “the yards emptied very quickly”.

The sawmiller agreed with a previous commentator that “the average log diameter is shrinking quite a bit, which means there is less production coming out. You just have to balance those things and right now we’re maintaining production and managing to keep supply coming in”.

The mill reports that the UK trade came back very strongly after lockdown, with the Republic of Ireland a bit behind but now “back very strongly, too”. And this was the case for all product sectors, with the possible exception of pallet wood which had “maintained itself powerfully through the crisis,” but had been “flattish”, although it was picking up again.

In common with other primary producers, the mill had witnessed “a huge spike in demand for fencing and landscaping materials” and had added a third shift to its fencing components line.

“We went to a third shift very early and are still on three now and not keeping up with demand,” said a company spokesperson.

“We are sold out on fencing until the end of the year and are already taking fencing orders for the first quarter of 2021.”

He added that featheredge “had gone ballistic” and that sales between January and October were 12% up on last year; sleeper sales were up 25%; and untreated and treated KD construction timber into the UK was up 27%. Pallet wood had stayed stable.

The inevitable consequence of high log prices, tight material supply and strong demand is high prices for sawn timber. Price increases cited by one contact are anything from £10-20/m3 and for some products it is much more than that.

“Sleepers are still going very well and I am seeing prices up €40/m3 in a month – and that’s for November and December when asking for price increases is unheard of.

“I have customers begging me to take orders for November and December and I’m putting ‘price to be discussed’ and they are quite happy with that.”

He added that this is for fencing material and that pallet wood “still has a bit to go – there is another £20-30/m3 to come on that, I think”.

The Irish timber sector remains confident it can continue to supply the UK market and that the latter will remain strong – even if the fencing demand is eventually satiated, the housing shortage is guaranteed to pull material in.

Views on Brexit range from the phlegmatic – they’ve prepared for it twice before and have done everything they possibly could without actually knowing what’s going to happen – to the anxious.

“We are very worried about where this is going,” said one contact. “I haven’t got time to list all my fears and worries about this debacle but it includes a fall in sterling, customs, paperwork, a UK recession and increased admin and haulage costs.”