Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week’s 50 for the Future article, Andrew Heald,Technical Director for the Confederation of Forest Industries, explains why changing the way we manage farm woodlands can provide benefits to farmers, the environment and society.
Number 15: Bring at least 80% of farm woodlands into active management to improve habitat for wildlife whilst also providing income or wood-fuel to communities and woodland owners.
Imagine if there was a crop, which farmers could grow, which was good for wildlife, carbon positive, provided shelter, reduced flooding and produced a valuable crop? Sounds too good to be true? A well designed and well managed farm woodland can do all of that and more.
Unfortunately, many farm woodlands are in poor condition, and not really supporting much wildlife or providing an alternative income stream. Farming and forestry in the UK have often not co-existed happily, traditionally forests were cleared to create agricultural land, and later afforestation created a net loss of grazing land and perceived as threatening farming livelihoods. The loss of Schedule D Tax Relief in 1988 and increasing land prices, brought the afforestation of the 1970s to an abrupt halt and planting of forests has only recently begun to increase.
However, many Scottish farms do contain woodlands of various sizes and quality, which could support a range of wildlife and deliver many ecosystem services, not just for the farmer but also wider society. So why aren’t these woodlands better managed? In simple terms, it is often that they are undervalued often because the landowner lacks the competency and knowledge to manage them better, not just for wildlife but also to produce timber. Recent developments in woodstoves and the government backed Renewable Heat Incentives, have increased the interest in (and value of) firewood and woodchip, but many farm woodlands can often be awkward to access and difficult to work.
Traditional woodland crafts which have developed over centuries still have their place, and coppicing to produce a range of products, particularly charcoal, can be perfect for “opening up” over mature woodland and encouraging ground flora. Our traditional low-load woodlands were often hotbeds of industry and the signs in terms of tree species, lime kilns and even saw pits are easy to spot, once you know what to look for. These woodlands are often dominated by Oak and Hazel, precisely because they were the most useful species on the farm.
The recent flooding events, have led to much discussion around the roles of trees in upland catchments and whether they can or can’t have an impact downstream. The answer again is, well it’s complicated but long term research at Pontbren in mid-Wales has demonstrated that well planned shelter belts and hedges can improve the infiltration of water my up to 60 times compared to grass only hillsides. Better infiltration means that rainwater will run-off the hill more slowly, reducing flood peaks downstream and also reducing erosion and so the amount of silt in the river system.
You can read more about the farmer-led project here – http://www.pontbrenfarmers.co.uk.
Interestingly, research undertaken by the Woodland Trust and Harper Adams University College in 2012 found that well planned shelter belts on arable farms could also play a significant role in mitigating against drought by reducing wind speed and so evapotranspiration in crops.
Trees on farms can also shelter buildings and livestock, and reduce the risk of spray drift on arable feeds but there can be a host of other benefits. Research by the Tweed Forum has encouraged landowners to fence out stream and river banks, and to plant trees which have helped cool the water temperature, which in turn has led to an improvement in the fishing.
How do we move from the current position where farm woodlands are often neglected, to one where they are adding value, not just in terms of amenity, but also for wildlife and for farm income. Education and knowledge is key, in Wales the Government’s Farming Connect advisors have been working with forestry experts to learn about forestry and to pass that advice on to farmers. Forestry grant schemes are very different to farm subsidy programmes. Forestry grants are often short-lived, and reviewed every 5 years, they can be heavily oversubscribed and require specialist knowledge just to fill in the form. By improving connections between farming and forestry advisors and regulators, can mean the farmer has a “one-stop” shop for information and support.
Forestry Commission Scotland has produced a great collection of case studies, showing how forestry and woodland can add value to a range of farms across Scotland.
Finally, all woodlands have an important role to play in our response to climate change, trees are a super-efficient way to lock up CO2, both in the tree and in long term wood products. Planting more trees, is not only one of the best ways to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, but also more woodlands are a vital response to an increase in storms and high rainfall. Perhaps the final barrier to overcome is a mental one around perceptions, most foresters don’t understand farming and many farmers see woodland as a hindrance rather than an asset. If we can remove that barrier then hopefully farm woodlands will have a very positive and valuable future.
Let us know your thoughts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.
Andrew Heald, Technical Director – Confederation of Forest Industries