With a proven track record for providing prompt, professional and efficient forestry services whilst almost invariably operating in unforgiving terrain, Finn Valley Harvesting has established itself as one of Ireland’s premier forestry contractors. We took a trip to Donegal and spoke to co-founder Martin ‘Ryan’ Gillespie to find out more about this industry-leading, family-run business.
There are few forestry contractors in Ireland that can match the wealth of experience and reputation for excellent workmanship amassed by Finn Valley Harvesting over the decades. Director Ryan Gillespie, for example, is a third-generation forestry worker and has been delivering exceptional, efficient and value-added clearfell and thinning services across County Donegal’s decidedly challenging topography for more years than he cares to remember.
A limited company since 2013, Finn Valley Harvesting was established by Ryan alongside his father Tony and another father-and-son duo – Kevin and Adrian Carlin. “Myself and Adrian have been cutting timber since 1995,” the former reflects. “We both started at this when we were 16, following in the footsteps of our dads, who have around 90 years’ experience between them. My dad, Tony, is still very much involved at 66 and has been working in forestry for 40+ years. Kevin has retired and Seamus Byrne now completes the team.”
Finn Valley Harvesting is renowned as one of the longest-established and most reputable forestry contracting outfits in Donegal. Indeed, both of Ryan’s grandfathers also worked in forestry, so it’s very much in the DNA!
Donegal is of course synonymous with forestry and the Finn Valley Harvesting team never have to travel far for work: “There’s a lot of timber in Donegal,” Ryan confirms. “Ballybofey is a prime area for forestry and we’d rarely go any more than 30 miles from home.”
The vast majority of Finn Valley Harvesting’s work is for Coillte, with high-quality timber from Donegal going to sawmills as far afield as ECC Timber and Murray Timber Group in Galway as well as Glennon Brothers in Cork. In addition to providing keen services on behalf of the state-owned body, Finn Valley Harvesting also work for some private landowners. “We also thin for a lot of farm partnerships in Donegal, which are co-owned by the farmer and managed by Coillte,” the personable Donegal man adds.
With the onset of the pandemic, the last two years have been unprecedented for all businesses in Ireland – and forestry contracting is no different. “Last year, with extremely high demand for timber, we were doing 85-90% clearfell. People were doing more DIY jobs and demand was unbelievable. This year it’s predicted that it will be more thinning.
“There’s still big demand for timber but you have to persevere with the thinning if you want good timber coming down. If you want a full crop of timber at the end, then it’s vital to thin regularly,” Ryan continues. “Typically, depending on the conditions, we’d thin a crop two or three times and then clearfell at 26-30 years.”
Exceptional machinery is a prerequisite to providing optimal forestry services and – with two magnificent Ponsse harvesters and a pair of John Deere forwarders at their disposal – Finn Valley Harvesting certainly won’t be found wanting in this regard!
The state-of-the-art Ponsse Scorpion harvesters were acquired brand new from Ponsse Machines Ireland in 2020 and 2021. “We bought a new Cobra in 1998 and have stuck with Ponsse ever since. You get a great service out of them. They are a massive investment but you can run each one for five or six years and they hold their value very well, so you will have a good machine to trade in. The forwarders were bought in 2020 and a couple of years prior to that.”
Regarding his preference for John Deere forwarders, Ryan states: “They have self-levelling, rotating cabs and are extremely comfortable for the driver. Visibility out of them is also excellent. The Scorpions come with the same standard of cabs plus all the mod cons. Our main requirements for the machinery are that they have to be reliable and comfortable to operate.
“We keep all the machines in great condition to ensure maximum performance. My brother does all the servicing on them. The tanks are filled with diesel every second day, they are greased once a week and undergo a full service every 500 hours. Stephen at JF McGlynn & Son does all our low loader work.”
Conditions in Donegal’s forests are harsh and the comparatively extreme terrain provides the ultimate test to forestry contractors. Only the very best will stand the test of time here…
“If it’s not mountainous terrain, it’s soft bog. About 70% of the land is boggy rather than arable land, with a lot of extreme conditions, from looking over a cliff edge to swamps,” Ryan relates. “The ground is as challenging here as anywhere in Ireland and the weather is also very unfavourable, with a lot of wind and rain. However, the upside is that the conditions are ideal for producing timber. Timber tends to grow very quickly in Donegal and yields are high. In fact, the BAU 1 region [Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo] is one of the highest-producing regions in the country, which has obvious benefits.”
To ensure maximum productivity and the safest possible working environment, Finn Valley Harvesting never bite off more than they can chew: “We don’t do unreasonably big hours. We’d set off early in the morning and work steady hours, from 8 until 5:30. You strive to produce as much as you can as safely as you can without any ground disturbances. It can be more difficult during the winter to keep the machines afloat as – even allowing for the fact that we are using some of the smallest machines available – today’s machines are still a lot bigger and heavier than what you’d have been using 25 years ago.
“The main thing working in forestry is that you have no accidents and no near misses. We have a perfect safety record and our priority is to preserve that. Once the operator knows what he is doing, he will be safe inside the cab. You need experienced men who can work safely and efficiently and also sort out a problem on site if one arises … we are lucky in that regard to have great workers. The cost of training up a young lad to operate a harvester or forwarder is huge, so it almost needs to be family.”
Supplementing the forestry work, Ryan also farms part time (sucklers and sheep) alongside his wife. “I’d regard that as just a hobby, really,” he concludes. “It’s nice to have something to do on your downtime when you come home in the evening.”
Finn Valley Harvesting Ltd.,
Tel: 087 2108110
Email: [email protected]
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 10 No 3, May/June 2022