The role of trees in protecting our natural resources

Soil and water are hot topics in farming right now. Farmers are facing unprecedented challenges from periods of flooding and drought and Britain’s soils are reaching crisis point, leading experts to warn that some soils have as few as 100 harvests left.   

Without healthy soils, clean water and an abundance of wildlife, including pollinators and beneficial insects, farming is not sustainable. We are gathering evidence and working with farmers to demonstrate the positive role trees can play in protecting and enhancing our natural resources. This autumn we will be sharing this knowledge with farmers via the Campaign for the Farmed Environment's (CFE) event programme.

How can trees help?

Trees and hedges act as natural barriers, reducing erosion by protecting soils and crops from the full impact of intense rainfall and strong winds. Deeper rooting trees improve soil stability, leaf litter adds valuable organic matter back to the soil and root debris can improve soil structure, all benefiting farmers’ future crops as well as the land.

Hear from a Nottinghamshire farmer who planted a mixture of tree belts and hedges to stop the soil being washed off his farm here.   

Trees are a long-term solution to protection of our soil and water (Photo: WTPL / Brian Aldrich)
Trees are a long-term solution to protection of our soil and water (Photo: WTPL / Brian Aldrich)

Protection against drought

Trees can act as an insurance policy against droughts. Tree belts modify the crop microclimate by reducing both wind speed and water loss and retention of moisture will help reduce the impact of drought on crop performance. Reductions in wind speed also increases soil and air temperatures, helping to extend the growing season, as well as protecting against soil erosion.

Pioneer agro-forester Stephen Briggs reports that his silvoarable scheme “has delivered everything we wanted. It’s making us more income and delivering soil protection and biodiversity benefits. There is a lot of talk about cover crops at the moment. Trees are the ultimate cover crop because you do not have to plant them each year.” 

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Protection against pollution

Water pollution is costly to farm businesses as well as the environment. The Environment Agency estimates that approximately 25 per cent of phosphates and 50 per cent of nitrates in rivers are from agricultural sources, leached from soils or carried off in surface water runoff. The water treatment costs of soil erosion are thought to be around £21 million per year. Planting trees alongside watercourses reduces diffuse water pollution by reducing and filtering surface water runoff and reducing bank erosion. These trees can also be used to prevent livestock from entering watercourses and minimising point source pollution, as well as keeping rivers cool for the benefit of fish and other wildlife. 

As well as providing useful shelter, trees can be used to prevent livestock from entering watercourses (Photo: Carole Sutton / WTML)
As well as providing useful shelter, trees can be used to prevent livestock from entering watercourses (Photo: Carole Sutton / WTML)

Protection against flooding

Slowing the flow using a mixture of natural flood management techniques such as tree planting and leaky dams has been the focus of much discussion after recent flood events. There is certainly a growing body of evidence to show that trees can play an important role in catchment-wide flood risk reduction. As the Pontbren project demonstrated, tree belts planted in the right place are effective at intercepting rainfall and increasing infiltration rates. By increasing soil permeability and water storage capacity, trees reduce runoff, poaching and consequent damage to the grass sward.

Welsh sheep and beef farmer Jonathan Francis needed to take action as surface water runoff affected swards and caused waterlogged fields and soil erosion which led to a loss of land alongside water sources. He turned to trees and hedges to address key environmental issues on his farm.

Trees improve soil stability and structure and add valuable organic matter back to the soil to benefit future crops as well as the land (Photo: Peter Leeson / WTML)
Trees improve soil stability and structure and add valuable organic matter back to the soil to benefit future crops as well as the land (Photo: Peter Leeson / WTML)

Government support

The role of trees in resource protection also appears to have caught the attention of the Government. Speaking at the recently formed Sustainable Soils Alliance’s Parliamentary reception, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Rt. Hon. Michael Gove stated that the UK cannot withstand further loss of soil fertility. He pledged to make Britain the ‘world leader’ in the quest to end soil mismanagement, saying: “We see the planting of 11 million trees as part of that programme of making sure our soils can be refreshed, replenished and renewed.”

We’ll be present at CFE events across England this autumn to encourage farmers to recognise trees as a long-term solution to resource protection and explain how individual farm businesses can benefit. With this issue now appearing on the political agenda, we will also be pushing to ensure that a post-Brexit land management policy framework fully recognises the role trees can play.

Find details of CFE events and book your free place here.

Reap the rewards of trees on your farm

Start planting