“Farmers can make the best foresters,” says Paul Nolan, director of the Mersey Forest.
“They understand the biology of plants, they know how things grow and it's in their interest to steward their land as best they can - and make it pay.”
Nolan leads one of a dozen community forests across England that in 2020 announced a government-backed programme called Trees for Climate.
The network delivered 500 hectares of new woodland during the 2020/21 planting season, with £12.1 million of support from a wider government fund called Nature for Climate.
The programme is continuing into this year’s planting season with further support to the tune of £17.1M and the forests are working with landowners and farmers providing free advice, support with finance, and delivery of tree planting projects.
“Our programme will plant millions more trees around England’s town and cities, targeted at areas where they can make the greatest difference, in particular to local quality of life and levels of health and wellbeing,” says Paul Nolan.
“For our landowner partners, including farmers, the benefits are direct and tangible, including delivering a year-on-year income, and on farm outcomes like creating shelter for livestock and helping to manage water flows and soil.”
As the name of the programme suggests, Trees for Climate’s targets include storing carbon and the first year of planting will see around 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide locked up in trees.
The wider range of benefits will include reducing flood risk, delivering more home-grown UK timber, and creating more places for nature and biodiversity to thrive.
Combining a farm operation with tree planting and hedgerow restoration is sometimes labelled as ‘agroforestry’ and whether you are an upland sheep farmer, lowland dairy or largely arable, there are strong benefits to be secured through working with a local community forest, or with other woodland advisors.
Integrating trees, shrubs and more hedgerows into a farm can give a boost to productivity, improve soil health, and help protect the health of livestock.
For an upland sheep farmer for example, well managed shelter belts, hedgerows and trees can boost flock performance, improve animal health and as a result enhance farm profitability.
So, if the costs are covered, and the benefits are clear, what is stopping agroforestry from taking the sector by storm?
Fewer than five per cent of UK farmers practice agroforestry currently, so there is clearly some work to be done in bringing the worlds of farming and forestry together.
Those working in the field suggest that differing skillsets and professional approaches may be partly to blame. Also, UK and EU policies for agriculture and forestry have historically been misaligned, and support regimes did not fall in favour of planting trees.
Change is in the air, though. As well as new schemes like Trees for Climate, there is a national shift coming towards more environmentally beneficial land management, as Britain leaves behind the Basic Payments Scheme of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
The new dispensation for farmers and landowners will be the Government’s Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
ELMS will be based on the principle of public money for public goods and will directly support the goals of the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan and Britain’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Within ELMS there are six public goods which are explicitly included in the scope for the scheme.
These are: clean air; clean and plentiful water; thriving plants and wildlife; protection from environmental hazards; beauty; heritage and engagement with the environment; and reduction of and adaptation to climate change.
Several ELMS pilot schemes are being run throughout England, after which there will be a national pilot of the scheme before full implementation at the end of 2024.
Planting trees to deliver public good is a path any farmer can go down but according to one advisor to landowners, there needs to be a tailored plan in place.
Matt Taylor is an independent forestry consultant in West Yorkshire but also supports a network of around 80 farmers in the South Pennines, which leaves him with a foot planted firmly in both camps.
For him, any woodland creation must fit with the business plans of the farmer he’s working with.
“If I thought trees were part of the solution, then I’d propose that, right at the outset, but I certainly wouldn't knock on the door knowing nothing about their business or tell them they should just plant trees right across the farm,” he says.
“That’d be like knocking on a shoe shop’s door and telling them, they should be selling records.
“Many farmers aren’t interested in woodland creation per se,” according to Taylor. “They’re interested in sustainable business models, and that’s why the Trees for Climate scheme has helped, because it's a very straightforward offer that’s easier to understand than previous schemes and it is compatible with Basic Payments.”
Matt Taylor knows that for busy farm businesses, making things easy is the key, and that’s why he’s taken his approach one step further to create what he calls the ‘Farm Resilience Fund’.
The Fund follows a lease model where Taylor agrees to pay the farmer up to £400 per hectare for ten years, and takes care of funding applications, scheme design, planting, and management.
“After ten years, I give you a forest that's been designed to your specifications, with no ties, apart from the fact it's a forest protected by the forestry act,” he says.
The first step for any farmer interested in getting a woodland creation is to get in touch with their local community forest, or another woodland advisor or organisation like the Woodland Trust. Once an advisor has assessed the possibilities, the scheme design, funding, delivery and ongoing management can all be taken care of; in the case of Trees for Climate, there will be 15 years of funding for management costs included in the agreement.
“We have funding that can help make unproductive parts of the farm more productive,” says Paul Nolan. “With our support, farmers can also start to get ready for the new world of support payments, where environmental outcomes will be a priority.”
“Trees on farms can be an incredibly valuable tool for shade, for wood fuel or for managing water, and hard to manage or under utilised areas can be brought into use, and deliver an income source from the moment they’re planted up.”
As a last word, Nolan points out that when it comes to agroforestry, there really is nothing new under the sun.
“Trees provide shelter, they bring nutrients up from the deep in the soil and they help balance the water system too, as well as providing habitats, fruit and fuel. It’s not anything that high tech though.
“Trees and farming in truth? That goes right back to the dawn of farming.”