Farmers deterred from tree planting over planning battles

Farmers are withdrawing from woodland projects because of regulatory hurdles and pressure from environmentalists according to Iain Kyle, a farmer and forestry consultant based near Carlisle.

He says tree projects can be a good fit for the skills and assets within a farm business.

By using those skills to manage existing woodlands and create new ones on the least productive areas of their farms, the financial rewards can be impressive compared with the returns from farming, he says.

However, he insists barriers are being repeatedly put in the way of forestry projects progressing and that this is why the UK is falling short of its tree-planting targets.

See also: Woodland investment – demand, barriers and what’s available

Latest figures show a marginal increase in UK tree planting over the past year, but levels are still less than half of the government’s target of planting 30,000ha of new trees annually by 2024.

Mr Kyle has been working with farmers in the north of England to establish woodlands, but many haven’t progressed because of objections by stakeholders.

Among the opposition mounted to a recent application with which he is involved is the perceived impact planting would have on wading birds.

“The argument against is that forestry and woodlands harbour predators that would have an impact on these birds, but other than foxes, stoats and carrion crows, which we can control, other predators such as badgers and birds of prey are protected,” says Mr Kyle.

“My question to that is why is the wading bird population increasing in Scandinavia when they have more trees than anyone?”

Balanced approach needed

“We are never going to move forward with creating forestry if there isn’t a more balanced approach to weighing up the benefits and concerns.’’

Mr Kyle urges the authorities to be “more reasonable’’ in their demands.

A large woodland creation can be designed in a way that can meet all the recommendations set out in the UK’s Forestry Standards (UKFS).

“But when it comes to smaller schemes, which most farmers would be doing, it just doesn’t work,’’ says Mr Kyle.

“There needs to be some common sense applied, but this seems to be somewhat lacking currently.’’

He believes authorities are running scared of applications for conifer plantation because of negativity around monocultures.

“The way these woods are designed now, with open space riparian corridors and specified habitat areas, they provide a huge range of environmental benefits, but at the same time provide a valuable natural resource in timber.’’

Twists and turns

Barriers are placed at every twist and turn in the process of getting a new woodland creation approved, says Mr Kyle.

“There is constant goalpost-moving, with many of my clients – farmers – having to redo surveys, which in turn creates delay. Inevitably, they are losing interest in pursuing the schemes.’’

Many agents are not willing to take on woodland creation projects because of the uncertainty of the outcome and the costs – unknown and unnecessary, Mr Kyle insists – of extra surveys and “never-ending’’ consultations with stakeholders.

“If agents were to quote for all their estimated time spent on getting a scheme approved and give a client an estimation of cost and set out the risk factors, it would probably mean it wouldn’t even get out of the starting blocks,’’ he adds.

“All we need to do is plant some trees, but it feels like applying for planning permission to create some form of industrial or housing development, not a multifunctioning woodland that locks up carbon and is a diverse habitat producing a product that the country very much needs.’’

More flexibility urged in Welsh approach

In Wales, farmers are urging more flexibility too, warning that planting targets will otherwise never be achieved.

One beef and sheep farmer submitted an application for the capital cost of planting a new hedge and laying an existing hedge at his farm under the Glastir Small Grants scheme.

It was approved, but he hadn’t spotted in the contract that the hedging work had to be completed before the end of February. In previous planting schemes the deadline was the end of March.

“We received no reminder in February but we then got a reminder on 22 March when it was too late, and we are struggling to understand the logic in that when the application had to be in by the end of February,’’ says the farmer, who asked not to be named.

With a £1,700 grant at stake, the business has lodged an appeal for the money to be paid.

“The hedge is looking lovely, it has established really well,’’ says the farmer applicant.

He also suggests that the funding for fencing schemes is 10 years out of date.

“Because of the appalling quality of fencing materials we have been sold in previous years, we are trying to buy the very top-quality stuff, but the pricing is 10 years out of date on this.

“We know of people who have been advised not to bother with the new schemes because of how inflexible they are and the funding is not good enough.

“It is OK for governments to make the right noises, but they need to work with farmers, to be more flexible.’’

A Welsh government spokesperson said reminders were issued to all Glastir Small Grants contract holders as the claim date approached, providing them with an opportunity to contact the government if they were unable to meet the deadline.

“All enquiries are considered on a case-by-case basis,’’ the spokesperson added.

Creating new woodland

To create new woodland in England, landowners need to develop a written plan that includes evidence of site appraisals and design concepts, and complies with the UK Forestry Standard.

Depending on the specifics of the project, a multistage environmental impact assessment process must also be completed.

The Forestry Commission offers a range of funding schemes for woodland creation, tree planting, planning, maintenance and tree health.

The commission can also give advice and guidance on the legal regulations that must be followed and how to establish woodland sustainably.

The Woodland Creation Planning Grant provides funding to help cover the costs of producing a UK Forestry Standard-compliant woodland creation design plan, capped at £30,000.

In Wales, applicants must ensure their new woodland creation projects meet the regulations and standards set out by Natural Resources Wales.

Through the Welsh government’s sustainable land management scheme, Glastir, farmers can access two relevant financial support schemes – Glastir Advanced and Glastir Woodlands.