With planting woodland on set-aside now permitted, Gilly Johnson asks how trees suit the arable rotation.
ACCORDING to some woodland enthusiasts, tree planting can be more profitable than cereal cropping, even on good land.
Commendable zeal – but in practice this is stretching the truth somewhat. Anyone planting new woodland with the hope of making quick money from the enterprise is likely to be disappointed, suggests Tim Russell, ADAS conservation consultant based in Cambridgeshire.
The real case for trees isnt that they provide a route to extra profits – but rather that they wont be a financial burden on the arable business.
That said, the arguments for tree planting have been boosted by changes to the set-aside rules. Its now permissible to plant new woodland on IACS land, and count it towards the farms set-aside requirement.
The grower then receives payments at £300/ha, or at the prevailing set-aside rate, if this is lower. And if the set-aside rate drops to zero at some future point, then the woodland grants will be triggered instead.
"This new flexibility together with the rise in payments has lead to many more enquiries about woodland," says Mr Russell.
For more on the mechanics of the notoriously-complicated grant schemes, see the panel. But how might new woodland fit in on an arable farm?
Heres one example. Growing a range of high value vegetable crops at Whitehall Farm, Isleham, near Ely in the Fens, Clem Tompsett regrets the lack of trees in the flat East Anglian landscape. He planted one 1.6ha (4 acres) block 25 years ago, and now gains much pleasure from this area of broad-leaved woodland.
"I would like to leave more trees for the next generation," he says. Mr Tompsett built two reservoirs of a total capacity of 272m litres (60m gallons) to service the potatoes, leeks and carrots on his 397ha (980 acres). That left him with a large heap of topsoil.
He has used it to create a 3ha (8 acres) sloping woodland area adjoining one reservoir. Mr Russell recommended a mix of mainly broad-leaved species including native trees such as oak, ash, crab apple, maple, alder and cherry. Some woody shrubs and a few conifers are also included.
"Harvesting timber is not the main objective here – we are looking for amenity and environmental enhancements."
The trees were set in January and February. Normally, Mr Russell would recommend November planting, but the autumn was too dry last year. The saplings came through the dry spring well with the help of irrigation. This boosted establishment, giving a high survival rate of over 95%.
"We thought the late frost might take some out, but giving the plants a good soaking seemed to help," remembers Mr Tompsett.
There is a downside – weed growth. Using a hand-held sprayer, it would generally only take one or two trips per season around the new woodland to clear weeds from the protected tree bases with a glyphosate-type product. But Mr Tompsett has had to go in more often, and reckons another treatment might yet be needed.
"On fertile sites, weed control is critical," says Mr Russell. "Grass weeds in particular can compete with the young saplings for moisture."
Within three to five years weed control should no longer be necessary, because the trees should be large enough to smother them.
Another woodland area has been created on more sandy, lower-lying land. When completed this will add another 3ha (7 acres). Being a drier site, the species mix is slightly different, including holly, rowan and Scots pine.
"Within reason, there is scope to put in whatever trees you might like within the grant scheme," says Mr Russell. "But they should suit the site and your objectives."
Contractors were called in to do the planting. There are rules which govern individual spacing and stocking rates within the grant schemes (see panel), but the authorities are keen to encourage the inclusion of glades and wider pathways because it will help diversify the woodland habitat.
Mr Russell and Mr Tompsett have done just this. As long as the planting rates are still within requirements, then the grouping of trees is discretionary. Up to 20% of the area can be open ground.
Will the new woodland cost Mr Tompsett money? On balance, he believes it wont, and that is without including any potential return from harvested timber, or the appreciation to the capital and sporting land value. "Though it must be said that we wouldnt be growing vegetables on the land – it would not be productive enough."
The combined planting grants are enough to cover the cost of planting by a contractor – but no more, says Mr Russell.
"Its about £1.60 to £1.80/tree for the plastic shelter, the plant, stake, and the planting operation. So at a stocking rate of 1,100 trees/ha, what you receive with the two establishment grants just about balances the cost – but you should remember that a proportion is kept back until five years later."
But annual payments should also be considered. Part of Mr Tompsetts woodland area is counting towards his set-aside requirement, and will receive £300/ha (£121/acre) Farm Woodland Premium Scheme payments (see panel) for the next 15 years. There is a maintenance requirement attached to these payments. This involves keeping the stocking rate up to the required level.
Mr Tompsett values the environmental enhancement that woods offer. "Woodland improves my enjoyment of the land, and that matters to me." Last but not least is the positive feedback from the general public and his supermarket customers. "It all helps our business image!"