The Irish Hurley Stick Market

The Irish Hurley stick market
An early cash return?

Mick 0'Brien, RDS farm forestry judge on left with Mick Power, Coillte, holding an ash butt ready for hurley manufacture.

Few people realise that most of the ash used in the manufacture of Hurleys is imported into Ireland. We simply do not have enough native ash of the right age and size to suit this market, so Coillte import ash in order to keep our local manufacturers supplied.

Without this service, many of our local traditional Hurley manufacturers would be unable to source enough material to keep their workshops going and we would then be reliant on imported, finished Hurleys. If this were to happen we would have lost yet another valuable traditional craft and a further vital source of employment and income in rural Ireland.

Soon however, we will be self sufficient in ash as thousands of acres have been planted under the current afforestation scheme. Many of these plantations are approaching the stage when suitable butts can be harvested and certainly within 10 years this market should be fully supplied with home grown timber.

The man in charge of ensuring that there is a continuous supply of Hurley butts available is Mick Power of Coillte and I met him recently in Kilkenny where he answered all those questions that everyone with young ash is asking.

Top of an ash butt showing how it is sawn to make full use of the timber.
Mick said that the first query he normally gets is “How much is a Hurley butt worth?” You cannot really give a simple answer to this as it is a bit like asking how much is a bullock worth. It all depends on size, quality and finish. Hurley butts are very much the same. They come in many shapes and sizes. In some cases it might only be possible to use half the butt. The optimum size would be 28 cm DBH or diameter at breast height. Breast height is taken to be 1.3m from ground level so it is easy to check the suitability of standing trees. The butt that Mick showed me was 19cm DBH and when sawn contained enough planks for six top quality Hurley’s and a further three suitable for juvenile grade.

When pressed to put a value on an average Hurley butt, Mick suggested that the one we were looking at would probably be a reasonable example of an average butt and sawn was worth app €42. Taking away the expenses of harvesting, transport and sawing would leave a price to the grower of app €20. This may not seem like much and I have heard higher figures quoted, but if youhave a well grown ash plantation, somewhere between year 15 and year 20 you will have a harvest of perhaps 500 butts per hectare as part of the thinnings. This is equal to €10,000 and is tax free with the final crop still standing!

Mick Power with ash butt spread out, following sawing.

Any ash tree with a straight stem of 1.3m will be suitable for use in Hurley manufacture so most ash has the potential to make it for this market. Many plantations have fast growing trees that have forked low down and these would make perfect Hurley butts. It is advisable when carrying out first thinning to remember that a fast growing tree with abundant top branches that is forked at perhaps 2m is probably the one that will reach the Hurley market first. This tree should be marked for retention as a Hurley butt and can be harvested during the second or third thinning.

Mick said that the market for Hurley butts has grown by 30% in recent years and is continuing to expand. There have been fears expressed that the market would be flooded once the current crop of ash reached the required size. Mick feels however that while the price may well drop somewhat it will still give a good return for quality material. The game of Hurley is increasing in popularity and happily, our sportsmen continue to break sticks enthusiastically.

The finished article. Note the sweep of the grain in the blank, which is essential for the strength and flexibility of the stick.
Other materials have been tried but none have the resilience of ash or the flexibility to absorb the shocks received during a game. It is nice to know that here is a broadleaved crop that can produce some cash early in its life and like everything else we grow, the well managed crop will produce the best and earliest returns.

But watch out for thieves. There are organised gangs of thieves operating around Ireland and they can move in and take large quantities of valuable butts in one night.

This is a serious problem and like the theft of Christmas trees, vigilance is the only answer with frequent visits to the woods and proper locks and chains kept on gates.

I know I will be keeping a close eye on my own ash from now on. Even €5000 per hectare would be something to look forward to and indeed, I would be happy with half that.

Joe Barry, “Crann”

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