In today’s blog, our woodlands specialist, Kate Holl, talks about the many benefits of agroforestry for farmers, as well as the funding available.
Agroforestry simply means integrating trees into agricultural land. But in contrast to farm woodland creation, which normally results in a net loss of productive agricultural land, agroforestry can help improve farming productivity. Agroforestry systems are made up of trees or shrubs integrated into the rest of the farming system in a variety of ways, including alley cropping (rows of trees in between alleys of crops or pasture), trees in pasture, grazed woodland, shelter belts, pollards, trees in riparian zones and orchards.
A central benefit of agroforestry is that productivity is higher than in single crop systems, due to the fact that harvesting is from more than one level. In other words, in a silvo-arable system (trees and crops) with barley and fruit trees, there is the harvest of grain from the field level and the additional harvest of the fruit from trees on the same bit of ground. This means that overall productivity of arable agroforestry farms can be more than 40% higher than a monoculture system on the same land area.
Agroforestry also delivers many other important benefits:
- It provides shelter and forage for farm animals, which can also improve their welfare and save money on feed and bedding costs.
- It offers the farmer an additional income stream from wood fuel, fruit or timber.
- The trees will sequester carbon, hence helping with climate change.
- Nutrients accessed from deeper in the soil by tree roots and brought to the surface through leaf fall, contribute to healthier, more fertile soils.
- When trees are reintroduced to agricultural landscapes as part of agroforestry systems, run-off of nitrogen and phosphate, erosion from soils and pollution of waterways and air (ammonia) may be reduced.
- Agroforestry will also be beneficial for wildlife on the farm (depending on species and planting design), and can make the land less vulnerable to drought and flooding.
I’ve experienced the benefits on my smallholding. Sheep on my land enjoy eating “leaf hay” cut from surrounding hedgerows at the end of summer. Leaf hay cut from trees and shrubs can be a very valuable source of food for livestock – particularly when grass is in short supply, with nutrient and mineral levels often significantly higher than in pasture, so avoiding the need for costly “bought-in” supplements.
At the moment, agroforestry is not common in Scotland. Old wood pastures which are a form of traditional agroforestry can be found, but many of these are no longer actively managed.
However more farmers are now embracing agroforestry, seeing the benefits, now and in the future, for the resilience and productivity of their farms.
There is help for farmers who are considering introducing agroforestry to their farms. Funding is still available (currently until December 2020) under the Scottish Government’s Forestry Grant Scheme to help create areas of agroforestry within sheep-grazed pasture land or on arable land. The land that is intended to be planted with trees must be permanent grassland pasture, temporary grassland or arable land (Land Capability for Agriculture – Class 1.1 to 4.2 inclusive). Under the current scheme, if planning a silvo-pastoral regime (trees and livestock), then only sheep (not cattle) can be used for grazing, as the tree protection provided within the grant is not sufficiently robust for cattle or other grazing animals. However, changes are currently under discussion that may widen the scope of the integration of trees on farm land, so watch this space!
Under Scotland’s Rural Development Programme, the aim is to establish around 300 hectares of agroforestry by 2020; we still have a way to go to meet this target. So we’d encourage farmers to look at ways they can add trees to their farms and apply for funding before it’s too late. The potential is definitely here for agroforestry to flourish in Scotland, and for us all to benefit from harvesting the many benefits of this way of farming.
Guidance and information on funding for Agroforestry can be found on the Scottish Government’s Rural Payments and Services web pages, under the Forestry Grant Scheme.
Farmers looking for help with the planning and design of an agroforestry scheme can contact their local Forestry Commission Conservancy office.