WOODLAND AND FARMING

Today I attended a presentation for a scholarship which I won.  The scholarship was organised through the Harper Adams Development Trust, and kindly sponsored by Mr John Hepworth, a Harper alumni.  To win this scholarship I had to write an article titled ‘How can well-planned trees and woodlands add value and functional benefits to UK farms in the early 21st century?’, in the style of a Government PostNote.  I was shortlisted and then had to attend an interview where I presented a summary of my article and answered some mean and nasty relevant questions from two of my lecturers.  Below is the article I submitted.

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How can well-planned trees and woodlands add value and functional benefits to UK farms in the early 21st century?

Background

In a time of rising feed prices and associated farming costs, farmers are looking for alternative ways to supplement their income and reduce the amount they have to spend on their livestock. Carefully planned woodland and trees can help farmers to achieve both of these aims.

The Pontbren Project

The Pontbren Project was developed in 2001 when a group of 10 farmers collectively farming 1,000 hectares of land in Wales came together to plant woodland to the benefit of their farms. The initial aim of the project was to increase the sustainability of the farms and improve shelter for livestock. Through the planting of woodland, the farmers have discovered other benefits of trees in the uplands, both from an environmental and practical perspective, and the project has since been used for scientific research [1].

Planting for Shelter

Livestock

The most expensive time of year to keep livestock is when they are housed over winter. Animals are typically grazed during the summer months and brought inside when the weather becomes too poor for the animals to live. Housed animals require bedding and additional feed.  By planting well-positioned woodland, shelter can be provided to the animals, reducing the length of time that the animals will need to be housed, and in turn reducing bedding and feed costs. A porous belt of trees will absorb and reduce wind speed, and increase the temperature on the leeward side of the trees.

Trees planted for shelter on the Ridgeway above Letcombe, South Oxfordshire

Trees planted for shelter on the Ridgeway above Letcombe, South Oxfordshire

Large trees in fields can also provide shade during the summer, which can benefit livestock directly by allowing them to shelter in the shadow of the tree. However, livestock gathering in the same area repeatedly can cause damage to the ground in the form of poaching, which would have an adverse effect on grass growth. For this reason livestock should be moved regularly or susceptible areas fenced off.

Ponies graze poached ground beneath trees on Exmoor

Ponies graze poached ground beneath trees on Exmoor

Crops

The sheltering effects of trees can also be beneficial for crops. The reduced wind speed will allow the soil to warm up quicker, improving the growing environment [3]. Short, moderately thinly planted trees should be used for shelter, as tall or dense woodland can produce turbulence at ground level.

Exposure tolerant species such as conifers, sycamore and beech should be used for shelter planting [4].

Conifers near Longleat, Wiltshire

Conifers near Longleat, Wiltshire

Planting for Resources

Fuelwood is a potential source of income for farms. This could be in the form of logs for fire and stoves, or woodchip or pellets for biomass boilers. Short-rotation coppice species grown for biofuel have been shown to have a gross margin of £230/ha [5], and higher if the wood is processed into woodchip or pellets.

The Pontbren farmers took this one step further to develop a wood-chip bedding material from the woodlands to reduce bedding costs further [1]. It has been proved to promote high health and welfare standards in sheep and cattle.

 

Planting for the Environment

Trees and woodlands can help to significantly increase biodiversity on the farm [6], with management of woodland edges and hedgerow management being just two of many woodland-related priority options for wildlife benefits under the Entry Level Stewardship [7]. The best woodland for biodiversity is managed, mixed, open woodland as this allows a range of birds to nest, along with ground shrubs between trees [8]. Upland, native broadleaf woodland has been found to give the highest biodiversity benefits [9].

One of the unintended benefits at Pontbren is the impact that the planting had on water run-off. Afforestation can help to reduce run-off in a number of way:

1)      The amount of water reaching the soil will be reduced. Some of the rain that falls on the trees will evaporate straight back in to the atmosphere and never reach the soil.

2)      When rain that has fallen on the trees does reach the soil, this will be some time after the initial rain episode, and the soil will be able to absorb more water.

3)      Some of the water in the soil will be taken up by the trees routes. [10]

Run-off is a problem because it causes soil erosion, increases nutrient leeching and increases the incidence of flooding on low-lying fields, which damages crops and grassland.

Beech Tree

Beech Tree

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[1]The Pontbren Project: A farmer-led approach to sustainable land management in the uplands.  Grantham: The Woodland Trust                                                   [2] Food and Agriculture Organisation. Biophysical factors in Parkland Management. http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/x3940e/X3940E05.htm                  [3] DEFRA. Farm Woodlands: A practical guide.                                                  [4] Blyth et al. 1991. Farm Woodland Management. 2nd ed. Ipswich: Farming Press Books                                                                                                            [5] Nix. 2013. Farm Mangement Pocketbook. 44th ed. Melton Mowbray: Agro Business Consultants Ltd                                                                                      [6] Bailey et al. 2006. Maximising the natural capital benefits of habitat creation: spatially targeting native woodland using GIS. Landscape and Urban Planning. 75 (3/4) pp227-243                                                                                                      [7] Natural England. 2009. Farming for farm wildlife: Make the most of Environmental Stewardship. www.naturalengland.org.uk/publications                      [8] Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. 2013. Woodland Edge. http://www.gwct.org.uk/farming/advice/habitat-issues/woodland-edge/                [9] Anderson et al. 2002. Valuing the Benefits of Biodiversity in Forests.          [10] Barker et al. 2008. AQA AS Geography. Abingdon: Phillip Allan Updates

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