Agroforestry benefits nature, climate and farming
Agroforestry is a land management approach that combines trees and shrubs with crop and livestock farming systems. This practice delivers a multitude of benefits both for the farm and for nature. But it is yet to realise its full potential. Find out more about how agroforestry works, the rewards, why agroforestry needs to become the norm and how you can make a start.
What is agroforestry?
Picture a traditional rural scene. It may well include farm hedgerows, parkland and wood pasture. These are all examples of agroforestry. But agroforestry also includes newer innovative systems, like contour planting and silvoarable cropping - a method of growing alleys of productive trees among arable crops.
This deliberate integration of trees and shrubs into farming systems brings a host of benefits. Agroforestry systems can:
- enhance farm productivity
- increase wildlife
- improve soil health
- boost livestock welfare
- manage water flow
- contribute to climate change mitigation.
Systems can be designed to avoid the potential trade-offs that occur in many modern farming systems between food production and public goods, like clean air. It’s a win-win for farming and the environment.
Hedges and edges
Hedges are part of an ancient agroforestry tradition. Together with hedgerow trees and other field edge habitats, they form an extensive habitat network that's crucial to wildlife and defines our landscapes. They provide lots of practical benefits including protecting livestock from weather extremes, aiding biosecurity, mitigating flooding, and enhancing soil, carbon and water resources.
Why is agroforestry good for farmers?
Take an upland sheep farmer. Well managed and carefully placed shelterbelts, hedgerows and in-field trees can boost their flock performance, improve animal health and welfare and ultimately enhance farm profitability. The trees deliver all this through:
- shade and shelter
- browse for the animals
- improved water carrying capacity of the land
- better soil health.
Learn more about how trees benefit livestock farms
An arable example
Agroforestry is equally relevant in lowland farming. Farmer Stephen Briggs’ agroforestry project is the largest in the UK, and it's bearing fruit in more ways than one.
Credit: Tim Scrivener / WTML
Increase in production
By growing apple trees (perennials) and cereal crops (annuals) together, Stephen is producing more from the same area. At the same time, he is managing risk against climate change and enhancing nature too.
Credit: Judith Parry / WTML
Planting in the right place
Stephen developed his 52 hectare silvoarable scheme in 2009. Imagine standing amongst single rows of apple trees with a 24 metre alley between them for cereal production. The trees are planted from north to south to minimise shading. Pollen and nectar and wildflower species are planted beneath them, providing havens for wildlife as well as attracting pollinators vital for farming.
Credit: Tim Scrivener / WTML
Why did Stephen do this? As a new tenant he was horrified that his fine grade one soils were blowing away. The rows of apple trees immediately started to act as effective windbreaks, addressing the problem and bringing more rewards besides.
Watch Stephen explain his farm's results
I'm Stephen Briggs, we're here at Whitehall Farm in Cambridgeshire.
We're organic farmers on 250 acres. On this farm we grow crops of wheat, barley, clover, and field scale vegetables. And we've established the largest agroforestry system in the UK, growing apple trees with field scale crops growing in between. So, we established the agroforestry system here for a number of reasons. We're on grade 1 soils which are very prone to wind erosion and we wanted to create a productive windbreak which not only gives us another crop but also protects the soil from wind erosion and provides increased biodiversity at the same time and the agroforestry system suits that absolutely perfectly.
One of the attractions for me for agroforestry is that you know typically we only think of our crop production about a metre above ground at most in probably half a meter below ground. Whereas the trees in the system are using more space, so we're trying to capture sunlight for a longer period during the season and also using more space above and below the ground to actually grow crops. So, it's sort of vertical or tiered farming systems.
The beauty for us is that the wheat that you can see behind you is capturing its sunlight and nutrients early in the season and turning those into carbon and into cash crop. Then later in the season when the cereals are actually dying off the apple trees are still capturing that sunlight and turning it into a crop right through to late autumn so we move seamlessly on this farm from cereal harvest in midsummer through to fruit harvest in late autumn.
The way we established the system here at Whitehall Farm is that we've planted trees in a north-south direction so the sun comes up in the east and down in the west. So there's never any shading created.
We've used fruit trees because we're tenants or with a 15-year farm business tenancy we needed an economic return within that period we use semi dwarf fruit stocks of the trees. They’ll grow to about twelve foot. What that means is that they interrupt the wind and create a microclimate on a one to ten ratio so over about a hundred-foot width. We've actually established the row width at 27 metre row spacings between the rows of trees with a three metre pollen and nectar rich strip underneath each tree leaving us a twenty-four-metre alley width up and down the rows. That fits all our modern farm equipment which is typically 3, 4, 6, 12, or 24 metres wide. Alongside that we've created a controlled traffic farming system with 12 metre tram lines running up and down between the rows and that system is working very well with no particular problems using modern farm machinery.
So the only bit of specialist machinery we've had to buy for the agroforestry is this Subaru mower, four-wheel drive mower with a 1.2 metre flail on the front which we use to cut
in and out of the trees for control of any weeds, but also to manage the pollen and nectar rich strips to ensure there's a constant supply of nectar rich flowers for bees, both early flowering and late flowering by altering the cutting times throughout the season.
From an economic perspective the 125 acres of agroforestry cost us about sixty-five thousand pounds to establish. It'll be five years before that's coming into full production which will be this year and the economic return from the fruit should be in excess of what we're getting from a from a cereal crop. The benefit of the agroforestry over an orchard system is that we've actually only put 8% of our land area into trees. So, 92% of the land area is still giving us economic return each year from annual crop production. It’s not like having to put a whole field into trees, and then wait a period of time for that to come on stream and give us a return. It's actually doing it, we're getting an annual return each time from the cash crops from the annual crops and the trees come on over a longer period of time.
Agroforestry helps maximise productivity through three dimensional farming. Tree height means the system can use more of the space above ground, capturing maximum energy from sunlight and turning it into food.
Stephen’s arable crops primarily use water, nutrients and sunlight in spring and early summer. The trees need these resources right through to late autumn, enabling more energy to be captured from sunlight and turned into food. Tree roots gather nutrients and water from deep in the soil which benefits both crops. The canopy protects the annual crop from weather extremes.
Through agroforestry, Stephen is growing another income-earning crop and improving the business’ resilience. He now runs the Harvest Barn farm shop & café, where he sells home grown apple juice.
Why is agroforestry good for nature and the environment?
Farmland covers 72% of our countryside, so it’s essential that farming plays a role in helping tackle both the climate and nature emergencies. Agroforestry can be part of the solution while also supporting sustainable food production.
Credit: Tim Scrivener / WTML
Biodiversity and landscape character
Take Stephen’s farm as an example. As well as protecting the soil, the trees are improving soil health and boosting the farm’s biodiversity. Stephen regularly sees a variety of birds including yellow wagtail, tawny owl and reed warbler. And in this flat fen landscape, they improve landscape character while also sequestering carbon and capturing air pollutants.
Credit: WTML / Niall Benvie
In the uplands, the trees have a role to play in water management too. They protect water quality from pollutants and help to slow the flow by improving the infiltration of water into the soil.
Credit: Oliver Smart / Alamy Stock Photo
A lifeline for wildlife
They provide valuable habitat on the farm and create crucial corridors for wildlife to travel through the landscape too. The right trees in the right place also buffer and protect irreplaceable habitats like ancient woodland, home to plants and animals not found anywhere else.
Credit: Phil Formby WTML
Fighting climate change
Agroforestry systems have great potential to build carbon in each tree's woody components and sequester carbon in the soil. Research by the European Agroforestry Federation has demonstrated that when planting at a density of 50-100 trees/ha, carbon sequestration is 1-4 tonnes of carbon per year per hectare. For context, the average person in the UK is responsible for 5.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.
Why aren’t more farmers undertaking agroforestry?
In 2017, the AGFORWARD project estimated that only 3% of the UK’s farmed area practises agroforestry. Although this doesn’t include boundary hedgerows, parkland and wood pasture, agroforestry is still considered to be little practised and understood.
Such low levels of agroforestry in the UK can be attributed to a few factors:
- Historically, farming and forestry have been seen as separate industries with little transfer of skills and knowledge between the two.
- Separation of policy regimes at UK and EU level for agriculture and forestry which failed to recognise the landscape scale benefits of tree and agricultural integration.
- DEFRA does not provide any grants to support agroforestry in England. Though support is available in in Scotland and Wales, the narrow eligibility criteria are a deterrent for farmer and crofter uptake.
Agroforestry has an important place in the landscape, but significant barriers must first be overcome:
- a lack of skills and knowledge to successfully design, implement and manage agroforestry systems and identify and develop markets
- landowners having capital to invest, as lead times are long before returns are seen
- a resistance to change due to cultural perceptions of forestry devaluing land and its permanent nature.
What is the Woodland Trust doing to support agroforestry uptake?
Working with farmers
Since 2013, our Trees for your Farm scheme has provided advice and funding support to help farmers set up agroforestry systems. Funded by the corporate sector, we’ve helped create over 100 schemes. Together we have raised the profile of agroforestry and the scheme is now in high demand.
Working with farmers and organisations like the Soil Association, Organic Research Centre and Abacus Agriculture, we’re pressing for change. We’re calling on governments across the UK to acknowledge how important agroforestry is and embed it into new land and climate policies.
Our efforts are paying off. For England, DEFRA recently approved our Test & Trial proposal on agroforestry as part of the development of its new land management scheme. The project will explore with farmers what help they need to integrate agroforestry at scale, including advice and payment incentives based on the public goods the trees would deliver.
In Wales, we're working in the Welsh Parliament to build support for agroforestry. We're proposing a Hedges and Edges scheme that would support farmers to retain and increase tree and hedge cover on their land.
Encouragingly the Climate Change Committee has recommended converting 10% of the UK’s crop and livestock area to agroforestry. This will help the UK meets its net zero target by 2050, but has not been widely publicised. While planting large blocks of woodland is a key element of tackling climate change, farms across the UK can also make a huge contribution by allocating a small proportion of their land to hedges and agroforestry. It would need an extra 30-40,000 ha of agricultural land for agroforestry per decade – about the size of Rutland, England’s smallest county. But this 10% increase of farmland trees, alongside the Climate Change Committee’s call for restoring and increasing hedgerows across the UK, could increase annual carbon sequestration by over 1 MtCO2e by 2035 and nearly 3MtCO2e in 2050. That’s 3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a metric measure used to compare emissions of different greenhouse gases.
Learn more about trees on farms and get involved
Want to plant 500+ trees as woodland on at least half a hectare? Apply for saplings, advice and funding with our MOREwoods scheme.
Our MOREhedges scheme includes saplings, advice and funding for new hedging projects of 100 metres or more.
Get paid for planting new woodland for areas of 5 ha and above as part of our Woodland Carbon scheme.
Agroforestry in England: benefits, barriers and opportunities
The benefits of integrating trees on arable farms
The role of trees in arable farming
Agroforestry for timber, coppice and nuts
Agroforestry for pest control and pollination
Protecting trees and woods
Agroforestry in Wales
Hedges and Edges, a form of agroforestry, could help tackle the biodiversity and climate crisis if adopted by Wales' future sustainable farming scheme.