Planting trees can offer a range of benefits for farmers from protecting soils and crops, to improving livestock productivity and reducing flooding.
Some farmers, however, are put off by the idea as it can take productive land out of action. But many farmers who have planted trees believe the pros outweigh the cons.
We spoke to farmer Stephen Briggs who is reaping the benefits of 4,500 trees on his farm.
Find out about his experience, get his tips on how to go about planting trees and learn about the funding opportunities available to make tree-planting viable.
How the planting project began
For first-generation tenant farmer Mr Briggs, from Cambridgeshire, increasing his farm’s footprint by buying additional land wasn’t an option, so instead he decided to expand above and below ground – using trees to help him.
“Extra land costs money, but I don’t get charged for taking my farm vertical,” says Mr Briggs, who farms 103ha (254 acres) of arable land across two sites in Cambridgeshire and Rutland.
“I’m making use of the space both above and the farm, and I’m more productive because of it.”
Mr Briggs decided to plant trees on his farm after becoming concerned about his fertile fenland soil being eroded by wind.
Having originally learned about agroforestry and the value of planting trees on farms whilst working in Africa, he planted 4500 trees in rows to act as a both a windbreak and a way to anchor the soil thanks to their deep root system.
Designed with 27m spacings between each row and a 3m pollen and nectar strip under each tree, the system allows him to continue to grow conventional crops including spring and winter wheats, oats and barley.
However by planting fruit trees, he now has additional produce in the form of fruit which he can sell for additional income.
“As a tenant farmer with a 15-year lease, I wanted to plant something I could get a return from,” he says. “I also something that would be eligible for support under the CAP Basic Payment Scheme, which fruit trees are.
“The potential income from cereals is limited by commodity prices, whereas with fruit trees I can treble its value by turning it into juice and selling it locally.
“I view my trees as a crop with a longer rotation. To me that’s a benefit as I’m managing risk against climate change.”
While some farmers may be reluctant to give up crop space in favour of planting trees, for Mr Briggs the decision to plant heritage apples has helped boost his farm’s productivity, profitability and sustainability.
“I’ve put 8% of my land over to fruit trees in total,” he says. “This year we had terrible fruit crops because of the late frost, but we will compensate for that with better crops next year.
“It’s another case of risk-managing the business and it all evens out.”
Planting trees has also brought environmental benefits in terms of soil quality and increased biodiversity, he adds.
“It has certainly helped our land become a more interesting place to farm.”
Stephen Briggs’ tips for planting trees
Get advice from organisations like the Woodland Trust
“One of the biggest challenges we had was gathering knowledge on what to grow and how to grow it,” says Mr Briggs.
“As an arable farmer, I had to learn they trees are a different crop and need managing in a different way.”
Know what you want to get from trees
Whether you are prepared to wait for several decades to harvest quality timber, or whether you are thinking more short-term, it’s important to have clear goals, says Mr Briggs.
“We went with fruit trees because we wanted to have a marketable product within a few years,” he says.
Invest in infrastructure
“I would have invested in better-quality tree stakes at the beginning had I known better,” says Mr Briggs.
Saplings need to be properly cared for to give them a good start and to save time and effort in managing them later.
Protecting them with covers to ward-off inquisitive livestock and wildlife as well as giving them proper support is key.
Recognise there can often be compromise
Whether you are growing trees, crops, vegetables or grass, there’s sometimes a compromise between which gets the prime position.
“Some years some will do better than others, but it all tends to even out.”
Don’t be put off if you don’t own the land you farm
More than a third of UK farmland is tenanted, which can make it difficult for people to consider trees.
“Many people don’t want to plant something that won’t be mature until after their tenure is over,” says Mr Briggs.
“That doesn’t mean trees aren’t right for your farm.“It’s not straightforward, but there are models out there – for example, you could have a landowner who brings in other operators to look after the trees.”
Schemes to help with the cost of establishing trees
For farmers interested in planting trees on their farm, there are a number of schemes available to help cover the costs of planning, planting and caring for trees.
As well as the four listed here, there are also infrastructure grants to help cover the costs of installing roads, planning woodland, and running wood heating systems.
“The package of grants available is robust, if a bit confusing on some occasions,” says Matthew Woodcock of the Forestry Commission. “If you’re in doubt, it’s always worth speaking to us.”
Countryside Stewardship (England)
- Farmers can receive 80% of the standard cost of planting trees, up to a maximum of £6,800/ha.
- To be eligible, farmers must plant a minimum area of 3ha across the farm, with a minimum block of 1ha.
- If trees are being planted to manage water quality or flood flows, the minimum area drops to 1ha, with a minimum block of 0.1ha
- Land must be registered on the Rural Land Register
More information on Countryside Stewardship at the Forestry Commission
Woodland Carbon Fund (England)
- Encourages planting of larger, productive woodland
- Gives a similar level of grant to Countryside Stewardship, with minimum areas starting at 10ha blocks (to increase to 39ha at the end of July 2018)
- After five years of maintaining woodland, farmers are given an additional payment of £1,000/ha
- Land doesn’t have to be on the Rural Land Register, instead grants are administered through the Forestry Commission
More information on Woodland Carbon Fund is available from the Forestry Commission
HS2 Woodland Fund
- Announced in November, the £5m fund is designed to stimulate new woodland up to 25 miles either side of the HS2 route
- The first £1m of the fund opens in January and applications are being managed by the Woodland Trust
- Covers 100% of the costs of planting, with the same payment of Countryside Stewardship
- Farmers need a minimum planted area of 5ha to be eligible
More information is available on the HS2 Woodland Fund
UK Woodland Carbon Code
- Different to the Carbon Fund, the Carbon Code is a voluntary code where businesses offset their own carbon footprint by sponsoring woodland for the carbon it absorbs and locks in
- The value of the carbon can be sold at the time of planting, in which case growers can receive £1,000/ha towards planting costs, or it can be registered on a futures basis to be sold at a later date
Get more information on the Woodland Carbon Code
To showcase the benefits of planting trees, Farmers Weekly teamed up with the Woodland Trust to hold a special farmer event at the Allerton Project in Leicestershire.
You can read more about the event and register your interest to attend next year on the Trees on Farm website.
Thanks to the Woodland Trust, whose sponsorship made it possible to run this event. Farmers Weekly had full editorial control of this article.
A healthy, natural environment is essential for productive, sustainable farming. Changes in climate, along with pests and diseases, mean that maintaining a strong and resilient agricultural landscape is more important than ever before.
That’s why we’re delighted to team up with Farmers Weekly to run this event. At the Woodland Trust, we want to back farmers to develop agricultural systems that are cost-effective and support the surrounding natural environment.
From managing soil erosion and sheltering livestock, to providing an extra crop of fruit, nuts or timber – planting trees on your land can make a difference.
Visit the Woodland Trust to find out more.