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Integrating trees into a farmed landscape

Let’s make 2022 the year we put agroforestry into practice, say Georgina Weston and Crawford Mackay

For a number of years there has been a perceived stand-off between agriculture, forestry and woodland. Some farmers have been aggravated by land taken out of agricultural production to establish forestry, whilst foresters are frustrated by the lack of land available for new planting. Consequently, they have tended to be considered as entirely separate land uses.

However, with the concept of Natural Capital and changes to the Basic Payment Scheme on the horizon, now is the time to consider greater integration of trees into a farmed landscape. 

Both forestry and agriculture can deliver significant natural capital benefits, but often these are concentrated at the edges: the hedge, roadside, riparian buffer, field corner or windthrow. Where production is concentrated – whether of spruce, grass or wheat – other goods such as carbon storage, biodiversity, water quality and flood prevention – are often compromised.

Agroforestry is a land management approach that combines trees and shrubs with crop and livestock farming systems with the aim of delivering both production and other natural capital benefits across a whole site. The principles behind agroforestry are certainly not new and they have been practiced throughout history.

Shelter belt woodland

This is perhaps the most traditional form of woodland integration on farms and provides a number of benefits including:

-        Increased agricultural productivity

-        Livestock welfare

-        Water management

-        Soil health

-        Aiding biosecurity

Shelter belts can comprise commercial or native species and if managed appropriately, can provide an additional income stream from timber sales in addition to benefits to the farming operation.

Silvopastoral agroforestry

This is where an established woodland is open to livestock for grazing. Forest grazing and browsing by large herbivores are natural features of woodland ecosystems and can encourage tree regeneration as well as leading to greater variety of vegetation types.

Establishing open grazed woodland is a productive means of integrating trees at a farm level and can allow for two income streams to be generated from the same area of land. This method of integration is often more reflective of historic land use patterns such as orchard grazing.

Silvoarable agroforestry

This is where trees are integrated with arable crops. In comparison to silvopastoral agroforestry, this is rarely practiced in the UK, although it can provide a number of benefits such as reducing soil erosion and improving water retention, and there are some examples of it emerging.

Hedgerow Creation

This may seem like a relatively small thing to do, however hedgerows can provide significant benefits to a farming business and the environment.

 

In addition to benefits to the farming business, trees offer a number of benefits beyond those related to agricultural productivity. Trees can help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon whilst also providing other public goods such as clean air.