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Trees could feed livestock as climate change hits hay

The Cairngorms National Park provides a stunning setting for Lynbreck Croft. But the life comes with challenges. Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer run the croft and raise highland cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. They also like to plant trees, so we are big fans! As climate change hampers hay production, we’re working with them to explore whether tree fodder could be an alternative winter feed for their cattle.

Sandra with some of the trees already planted on the croft (Photo: John Macpherson/WTML)
Sandra with some of the trees already planted on the croft (Photo: John Macpherson/WTML)

A need for change

Lynn and Sandra are taking action against unreliable weather. They tell us that the traditional grass hay they feed their livestock is becoming harder to rely on. This is because:

  • Wet weather late in the season can scupper any chance of drying the crop, which happened in the area last year
  • Prolonged dry weather earlier in the season can mean less growth. That’s exactly what happened this year.

These conditions mean crofters and farmers are finding it harder to grow enough of their own hay. The cost of buying it in is high and likely to get higher as everyone struggles to adapt.

To reduce their reliance on a good crop of hay, Lynn and Sandra wanted to explore tree foliage as a winter feed. They turned to us for help.

Watch Lynn and Sandra explain their approach to crofting (Video: Julia Fayngruen)

Hedging our bets: trialling two approaches

In the first year, two options are being trialled. They will be planted this winter.

The first is a 400m hedge which includes about 2000 goat willow, grey willow and eared willow. These should do well on the wet ground lower down the croft. The hedge will offer shelter and animals will browse on it directly. But its main job will be to provide tree hay. Sections will be coppiced on rotation with foliage cut, bundled and dried in the barn.

The second crop consists of ten 10m square copses of mostly downy birch and alder. The plan is to coppice these on five year rotations for tree hay.

Both of these plantings are supported by the Croft Woodlands Project, which aims to help create 500 hectares of new woodland on croft land by 2020. The project is a partnership between Woodland Trust, The Scottish Crofting Federation, Forestry Commission Scotland and Point and the Sandwick Trust. Funding for the planting is from AccorHotels and delivered through the PUR projet, a social enterprise that works with farmers worldwide.

Lynn and Sandra have noticed that when their animals enter a pasture, they often ignore the grass and make a beeline for any available trees. It doesn’t look like the livestock will need convincing!

Two of the croft’s highland cattle (Photo: Lynbreck Croft)
Two of the croft’s highland cattle (Photo: Lynbreck Croft)

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Medicinal benefits for livestock

As an extra benefit, the species we're planting are noted for their anti-inflammatory qualities. Willow is, after all, the original source of aspirin. The crofters believe their tree hay might be better for animal wellbeing than the traditional grass version.

We don’t know how this will all pan out. But it’s clear that by diversifying their land, Lynn and Sandra are giving themselves more options in the years ahead. Flexibility is a good defence against an unpredictable climate.

Sandra at Lynbreck Croft (Photo: John Macpherson/WTML)
Sandra at Lynbreck Croft (Photo: John Macpherson/WTML)

Back to the future: returning to traditional methods

Tree fodder is not a new concept in the Scottish Highlands - it was part of the centuries-old traditional cattle droving system. We believe drovers used the ancient holly trees at Loch Arkaig pine forest in Lochaber to provide winter feed hundreds of years ago. You wouldn’t think holly would be much fun to chomp on but highland cows have tough tongues!

Could climate change see this ancient source of winter fodder make a comeback? Lynn and Sandra are keen to find out and we are delighted to help them.

Watch Lynn and Sandra talk about tree planting on the croft (Video: Julia Fayngruen)

Making a difference with trees

Thousands of people like Lynn and Sandra work with us to improve their business with trees. Trees can bring great value, from shelter or reducing flooding to extra food or wood fuel.

If your land could benefit from trees, contact our expert team. We can advise on species selection, ongoing management, available funding and much more.

From a single sapling to a whole wood

We can help you plant trees