How mixing farms and forests can help the UK reach net zero | News | Eco-Enterprise

Agriculture above the forests

Farming with trees in a multicultural system is not a new idea. People have used the technique for thousands of years, including on the British Isles, and it is still the method of choice over large swaths of the planet.

Farmers and other agricultural experts say agroforestry boosts biodiversity, helping vital pollinators like bees and birds, while reducing instances of pest and disease infestation for vegetable crops and livestock.

For example, spreading fruit or nut trees in a crop field, rather than grouping them together in an orchard, makes it more difficult for the disease to spread from tree to tree.

This practice also slows land degradation because the trees store nutrients and water in the soil and protect the soil from wind erosion, while protecting crops from flooding.

All can help counter the effects of rising temperatures and intensifying drought, experts say.

Despite the benefits of multiple cropping systems, a series of European and British agricultural policies from 1962 prompted farmers to clear trees to grow more monocultures, said Briggs, the Cambridgeshire farmer.

It has created “a chasm” between agriculture and forestry, he said, which over the past decade a coalition of farmers, environmentalists and nonprofits have made pressure on the British government to shut it down.

Since the UK left the European Union in 2020, its four national governments have announced the development of agroforestry standards and payment schemes to encourage more trees on farms.

“The government now seems to at least accept that trees on farms are no longer a problem, that they are part of the farming system,” said Chesshire of the Woodland Trust.

“Change is a challenge”

Advocates argue that political incentives are the crucial first step to developing agroforestry.

Tackling the country’s tree shortage will take time, Chesshire said, noting that trees should be grown domestically to avoid importing invasive species or diseases that could jeopardize the whole of the country. system.

The next step, proponents say, is to educate people about agroforestry techniques.

“People make the mistake… of assuming farmers are foresters, and they’re not. Change is a challenge for them,” said David Brass, CEO of The Lakes Free Range Egg Company in Cumbria.

The lakes sources its eggs from more than 70 farms and requires all of its producers to have 20% of their hens’ acreage covered with trees, Brass explained.

The company provides up-front payments to many farmers reluctant to plant trees and pays a “significant premium” for ongoing maintenance, he said.

On his own farm, Brass said his investment paid off in the first two years. Hen mortality has dropped and egg quality has increased.

As descendants of jungle fowl, chickens are happier and safer among trees, he said, adding that trees also protect animals from increasingly extreme temperatures.

Time for a revival

Another challenge farmers face when considering switching to agroforestry is time. Trees can take anywhere from five to 70 years to mature, depending on the species.

“Asking tenants (farmers) to invest in trees if they have a five-year tenancy and the apples are taking more than five years to get closer to a return is problematic,” said Matthew Heard, conservationist in charge. of environmental research at the National Trust, Britain’s largest private landowner.

“This is where stepping in as an owner is really important.”

As well as adjusting tenancy terms so landlords offer longer leases, farmers also want the government to extend its sustainable farming payment scheme from three years in a row to eight years, in light of the multi-year financial risk they take until the trees are established. .

Despite all the challenges, agroforestry advocates say the improved food security and economic productivity, as well as the environmental benefits, far outweigh the costs.

On his farm, Briggs pointed to a petrified tree trunk at the edge of a field.

“Before the area was cultivated, there were trees here,” he said. “We need to put trees back on the landscape in a way that we can manage. That’s what the earth is all about.

This story is published with permission from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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