Published: 01 June 2021

We can make honey forever from leatherwood forest, but we’re losing it fast

NORTH-WEST and Western Tasmania contain many unique tree species. Huon, King Billy and Celery top pines are well known. Leatherwood trees less so unfortunately. To walk through a stand of mature leatherwood trees in full flower is an unforgettable experience. Bees appreciate it even more.

Timber from leatherwood trees may lack the value of other iconic special species timbers, but the beautiful white flowers and the nectar they produce are of immense value. Leatherwood trees under 75 years old have few flowers while trees 175 to 210 years old produce the most flowers, and thus have the most value.

The health benefits of honey have been known for centuries. Research into the medicinal properties of honey, particularly leatherwood and manuka, continues with very promising results. It is already used in a range of medical settings. The potential for this industry sector to grow is enormous. But it can only grow if the trees are not destroyed. Leatherwood trees do not regenerate after forest regeneration burns. The risk of destruction of a valuable resource threatens the future of a very lucrative and importantly a sustainable industry. This industry epitomises the stated Tasmanian brand of “quality taking precedence over quantity”.

Leatherwood trees are found exclusively in Tasmanian rainforest, much of it in and around the Tarkine. Leatherwood honey is a sought-after and valuable product with potential medicinal benefits worth much more than the return on trees harvested around them. The leatherwood honey industry is providing many jobs and prosperity in production and sales with significant capacity to grow.

However leatherwood trees are increasingly becoming casualties of forestry operations of Sustainable Timber Tasmania to meet what appear to be unsustainable contracts for native hardwood. Beekeepers have been raising the alarm for some time. Now forest contractors have privately raised concerns about current and planned harvesting in the North-West where many large leatherwood trees are being sacrificed to meet contractual arrangements for native timber peeler logs. Industries relying on native timbers and beekeepers have conflicting interests.

In the North-West where much of our leatherwood exists, current forest practices mean logged rainforest is mostly converted to even-height, even-age eucalypt forest, thus the amount of resource for leatherwood honey in these areas will disappear completely.

One hive can produce $1500, at retail prices, per year. This is based on 55kg of honey per hive at $27 per kg. One hundred hives can bring in $150,000 a year. In just 10 years one operator in a small area of rainforest can produce $1.5m worth of honey. This is not a once off harvest. Honey can be produced indefinitely as long as the forest remains intact. The estimated 4000 hives lost to logging north of the Arthur River in the past 25 years would have returned about $150m to the local economy at current prices. The local economy will lose $6m every year into the future because the leatherwood resource is no longer available and unlikely to return.

We therefore have an inherent conflict between regular income from bees versus short-term proceeds from harvesting less the cost of regrowing native timbers. Regrowth takes about 90 years to produce high-value sawlogs or every 40 to 50 years for peeler logs harvested before their prime.

The government-owned Spirit of Tasmania has recently promoted our leatherwood honey: “Looking for delicious souvenirs? You can’t go past Tasmania’s liquid gold – including the legendary leatherwood honey.”

While one government business is promoting “Tasmania’s liquid gold” another is destroying that very resource.

The forest industry and honey industry can co-exist but not with current practices and competition for the resource, a resource being decimated to meet contracts for native eucalypt that grows in this same region. Competition for the native resource is fierce, with volumes continuing to be sold as low grade woodchips and peeler logs. Native forest harvesting does produce a range of products. However, only a small percentage of these, mostly clear-felled forests, are being value-added as furniture, flooring and other specialty timber products

Bees of course, also provide essential pollination services to the agricultural sector and are vital to the expansion of our fruit and vegetable sector. The importance of beekeeping and agricultural sectors to our very survival cannot be overstated. Without bees, life as we know it would suffer irrevocably. Whilst the Tasmanian Beekeeping Industry has a memorandum of understanding with the forestry industry this seems designed to keep beekeepers from active participation and direct decision making in any meaningful way to avoid their precious resource from being destroyed. This needs to change.

There need to be meaningful discussions and well-informed decisions about how to extract high value timber products from our forests whilst leaving the leatherwood resource intact. If we continue on the same path, a lucrative industry and associated jobs will be lost and we as a state, will be all the poorer.

The Mercury, 1 June 2021


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