From The Ground Up – Farmers are leading the way on agroforestry

Picture by Jim Wileman - Agroforestry at Elston Farm, Copplestone, Devon with Andy Gray Picture by Jim Wileman – Agroforestry at Elston Farm, Copplestone, Devon with Andy Gray

By Luke Dale-Harris

Agroforestry is a new word for an old idea. All it really means is trees in fields, with farming – from livestock to horticulture – continuing around and amongst them. And like so many aspects of regenerative farming, it is an idea long known to our ancestors, briefly forgotten in the hubristic decades of the last 50 years when weather and economics seemed on our side, and now rapidly being remembered again.

This is true not just in the UK but across the world, with the pace of readoption varying sharply from one place to the next, driven by the urgency of local climatic conditions. In the countries bordering the Southern Sahara, since droughts gripped the area in the 1980s tens of millions of acres have been bought into agroforestry, with at least 1.4 billion trees introduced. Relatively, here in the UK we’re just getting to our feet, though as weather gets ever more extreme, we can say with some confidence that the agroforestry wave will swell.

It’s already beginning. In 2020, while working for the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, I started a trial with 7 farmers in North Devon to research the potential benefits of silvopasture (essentially agroforestry with animals), from biodiversity and carbon sequestration through to animal welfare. At the time, few had heard of silvopasture and only a handful of farms across the country were consciously practising it. As it turned out, we were part of a movement much bigger than any of us realised. In the years since, farmers up and down the country have started introducing agroforestry, from huge estates down to tiny smallholdings.

The buzz has proved infectious – the farming press, normally interested only in shiny machines and novel genetics, now can’t seem to get enough articles about trees on farms; this autumn the country’s first full agroforestry conference will be held in Wiltshire, complete with supermarket sponsors; and the Woodland Trust are up to their eyeballs in agroforestry funding applications. Just in time, the government seem to be getting on board – next year an agroforestry funding scheme will be launched as part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive, which we hope will make all the difference in uptake.

But at its heart agroforestry, and silvopasture in particular, is a farmer-led concern, driven by observations of how their animals act in different conditions. Over the last few years, the string of hot, dry summers has driven a whole new appreciation of hedgerows and farm woodland, as livestock seek out whatever shade they can find. When the rain and winds arrive in autumn and winter, the animals return to these same spots, now for shelter. The response of many farmers has been to make more of these features, letting the hedges grow up and out and opening more woods to livestock.  Where existing woods and hedges are insufficient, many are now planting more trees – some breaking up fields with new hedgerows, others planting lines of and growing crops or grass in between the rows, some recreating semi-natural wood pastures with clusters of trees dotted across grassland. Of all the twenty-five or so farmers we work with at Farm Wilder, every single one is introducing more trees to their farms or, where their land is sufficiently wooded already, making more of the trees they already have.

The benefits of this stretch far beyond the trees themselves. We know that soil carbon increases where trees are planted, allowing the ground to hold more water and better cycle nutrients crucial for plant growth. We know that trees support livestock in a myriad of ways, providing nutrient and medicine-dense feed from their leaves, and giving animals trunks to rub against which is critical to maintaining skin health. We know that trees, and shrubs like hawthorn and willow in particular, can hugely boost wildlife populations in pastureland in a short amount of time.

What we don’t know is the extent of these benefits, and in our data hungry culture this empiricism is important, both for driving appropriate government and market support and engaging the more sceptical end of the farming community. This is why we set the Devon Silvopasture Trial up and built the research parameters around the priorities of the farmers. With partners at Rothamsted Research, The Woodland Trust, Innovative Farmers and the Organic Research Centre, we hope to produce robust data over the coming years that will back up what farmers are seeing on their land.

Many of the farmers involved in the trial are part of Farm Wilder – Carolyn Richards finishes cattle for us at Ashton Court, which start life on Sam Bullingham’s farm at Taw River Dairy. Andy Gray at Elston Farm also runs MC Kelly, a wholesale butcher we partner with closely, and Seb Powell is restoring land at Buckfast Abbey with Farm Wilder’s support. We now have some wonderful films of these farmers talking about their experience with silvopasture, made by Tom Law and Rothamsted Research, which we’ll be sharing over the coming weeks.