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How to see the wood from the trees...And the sheep!

Understanding the drawbacks of the Sheep and Trees Initiative.

There is a host of potential benefits of tree planting for land owners from carbon credits and tax benefits to shelter for livestock and amenity. Many of these benefits go beyond the commonly understood ecological benefits, and offer financial benefits to upland farmers who choose to plant trees. 

The forestry grant scheme can increase this financial benefit and one part of it, the Sheep and Trees initiative, is specifically aimed at upland farmers.

Launched at the Highland Show in 2017 the Sheep and Trees Initiative aims to promote upland tree planting, increase farm diversification and meet the Scottish Government’s sustainable development objectives. 

The initiative is part of the wider forestry grant scheme and offers upland sheep farmers funding for planting of small blocks, between 10ha and 50ha of commercial forestry species such as Sitka spruce. In addition, capital funding for access tracks was included in a single simple application form. 

The idea was that these forestry blocks and access tracks, when properly positioned would provide shelter for sheep and cattle on the hill, reduce feed and winter housing costs, provide timber at harvesting and improve access for stock and forestry management. Designed to promote integrated forestry in upland farming across Scotland, the initiative has, to date, had a very low uptake. 

As shown by Morgan-Davies et al., (2008; 2012) a Scottish upland silvopastoral system, combining sheep and native woodland, was an achievable and beneficial system. They found that 23% of farmers were willing to diversify, with half already having made changes and 11.5% having diversified through afforestation. The integration of farming and agroforestry was shown to have positive results, increasing overall productivity by 20% when tested in Perthshire. If, as shown by this research, farmers are keen to diversify and integrate trees in their business why has the initiative had such low uptake?

Through research and interviews with upland farmers the reasons for this low uptake have become clearer.

Farmers have traditionally held negative attitudes towards tree planting especially in the uplands. This is partially a result of historic conditioning when tenants were legally prevented from planting trees on the landlord’s property, and a legacy of the poorly designed upland planting of the middle 20th century. This negativity to all trees is still evident amongst the farming population and extends more widely when commercial conifers such as Sitka spruce are considered. 

These negative attitudes towards conifers go part way to explain the lack of uptake of the Sheep and Trees initiative which focused primarily on commercial conifer planting. In many upland situations a reduced number of commercial species are suitable for planting. This also contradicts the desire of farmers to plant in less productive areas of the farm. On an upland farm, especially in marginal areas, the most appropriate and more desirable species for planting may be native upland trees such as birch and mountain willow. These species are unable to offer a commercial timber return but can be useful for biodiversity and providing shelter. Despite the potential of these species, they are not supported by the Sheep and Trees initiative, reducing its appeal. 

The initiative allows for planting of small blocks of forestry, with partial integration into the farming system, through on farm management and the provision of shelter for livestock.

This planting is at standard forestry densities of 2500 stems/ha. The farmers questioned expressed preferences for more integrated planting, which is supported by previous research which showed positive attitudes to integrated woodland systems are held by farmers across Europe. Many interviewees in Scotland expressed a preference for woodland styles with greater integration that those available within the initiative. Greater integration can take a range of forms including woodland grazing, silvopastural agroforestry, shelterbelts and creative planting at lower stem densities. Some of these types of planting are represented in the diagram below.

Although the initiative represents one form of integrated farming, more highly integrated systems such as hedgerows, silvopasture, and shelterbelts are highly desirable amongst farmers. These types of systems often reflect more historic land use patterns such as orchard grazing, extensive use of hedgerows and planting of shelterbelts. 

More practically, it is also believed that although these types of integrated woodland do not provide a commercial timber crop they could provide material for biomass and provide increased shelter for stock. This reflects the poor design of the sheep and trees initiative, as one of the key benefits is not well provided by the tree species required in the initiative. 

With many upland farms being a solo enterprise, some farmers lack the capacity to provide tree management labour from existing resources and looking ahead may feel they cannot afford to pay for the labour required to manage their trees, deterring participation in the initiative. This is not exclusively a problem of the Sheep and Trees initiative but of farmers planting trees more generally, however the focus on producing commercially viable timber and the large amount of trees required under the forestry grant scheme have perceived greater labour and maintenance requirements than native planting. 

The majority of a small sample of interviewees who expressed interest in integrated farming had not heard of the initiative and were unaware that funding was available for upland farmers to plant small forestry blocks. It would be expected that those with an interest in integrated farming would be prime candidates for the initiative. From this it appears that there was a lack of advertising of the initiative amongst the relevant groups. The species of trees and styles of planting supported by the Sheep and Trees Initiative appear to be misaligned with the preferences of farmers wishing to adopt an integrated forestry system, this along with the lack of awareness appears to be the main reason for the low uptake of the scheme.

Having seen that the initiative has not proved popular what would be a better example of a scheme for upland farmers to encourage integrated farming and forestry? 

The positivity towards integration shows that a scheme to support integration on upland farms has the potential to be successful. However the scheme needs to provide support for the correct types of integration in order to achieve a good amount of applications.

Moving the focus from commercial conifer to native broadleaf species would likely increase uptake. The type of Schemes which were considered desirable by interviewees were overwhelmingly those which included high levels of integration. Empowering farmers and land managers to make decisions about the types of integration which will work best and ensuring any initiatives are well designed and advertised would help to ensure high levels of uptake.

Giving greater flexibility would allow farmers to benefit from productive commercial species where they are appropriate in an integrated farm model. This increased flexibility would offer wider possibilities for landowners to plant trees to meet government goals with government support, while providing options which are desirable for landowners. This demonstrates the importance of practical research and consideration on the views of participants in informing policy. Support to help upland farmers and landowners overcome the practical barriers has the potential to provide positive benefits for all involved.

The poor uptake of the Sheep and Trees initiative shows the importance of funding being focussed on the right type of support. There are other grants within the forestry grant scheme which may prove more compatible with the desires of farmers for greater integration. These include the agroforestry initiative which offers capital payments for individually protected trees and support for woodland grazing.

The Galbraith Forestry Team are able to offer support with the design and management of integrated woodland projects at a range of scales. Please contact us for further information.