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Agroforestry comes of age

"If trees didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent them," as quoted by Barbara, Baroness Young of Old Scone and chair of the Woodland Trust. They provide a whole array of services; absorbing carbon, stabilising the soil, helping with flood alleviation, providing shade and shelter to name but a few. But what is agroforestry and why should farmers and land managers embrace it? Below we look at the latest developments and resources.

Creating a new agroforestry scheme (Howisons Scotland)
Creating a new agroforestry scheme (Howisons Scotland)

Agroforestry is the deliberate integration of trees and shrubs within agricultural crops and livestock. These systems simultaneously protect natural resources such as clean water whilst supporting agricultural production. It is a win-win for sustainable farming and the environment and exactly fits with Michael Gove’s ambitions that farmers should be rewarded for delivering public goods alongside food production.

But for agroforestry to become mainstream landowners need evidence and practical guidance on how to implement it. Here at the Woodland Trust we provide advice via our outreach staff and subsidised trees for landowners wanting to create new schemes. More details can be found on our large scale tree planting page. Over the last five years we have helped numerous farmers set up agroforestry schemes and together we are analysing the lessons learned via our demonstration programme. We are monitoring outcomes, sharing our experiences and inspiring other farmers to follow suit. A number of short videos featuring some of our demonstration farmers can be found on our YouTube channel.

Sharing knowledge at the Allerton project (Photo: WTML)
Sharing knowledge at the Allerton project (Photo: WTML)

Our research

One of these videos describes our partnership with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust ‘s (GWCT) Allerton Project in Leicestershire. This research project is allowing us to examine the multiple benefits (and issues) expected from a pasture based agroforestry scheme. At what tree planting density does it become unviable to graze sheep? What is the impact on soil quality and water infiltration rates? These are just two of the questions we hope to answer. The GWCT holds regular open days at Allerton, offering opportunities for landowners to see at firsthand agroforestry in practice.

There remain many unanswered questions about agroforestry. But there is some exciting research underway. Take the work with the electric sheep led by Bangor University which aims to understand the effects of tree shelter on energy inputs required to maintain livestock health and productivity. Put simply, can shelter belts improve the performance of the flock? The University of Reading is exploring how agroforestry systems might influence natural pest regulation and pollination services. Trials are being undertaken with three of the our partner farmers over this summer.

Agroforesty in Europe

In many European countries agroforestry is much more widely practiced providing opportunities for the UK to learn from their experiences. AGFORWARD was a European project with an aim to promote agroforestry best practice. Completed in December 2017 it has produced a useful series of 10 best practice leaflets and 46 innovation leaflets. Although the technical leaflets are based on arable farms many of the practices are relevant to livestock farms. Guidance is available on topics ranging from scheme design and species selection to protection against deer damage and tree planting.

AFINET is a new European agroforestry innovation network which here in the UK is being led by the Organic Research Centre and Abacus Agriculture, and is another source of useful information. A series of on farm workshops has been set up to exchange expertise and experience, develop ideas, identify knowledge gaps, enhance networking and motivate participants to put agroforestry into practice.

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The future

Agroforestry is not a new practice but I now believe its day has come to be a mainstream land use activity in the UK. It offers exciting opportunities for those farmers and land managers who want to embrace the delivery of sustainable food production alongside a range of public goods. We all have lots to learn but by sharing knowledge and experience we can all reap the many benefits trees can deliver.   

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