I’ve loved trees for as long as I can remember. They’ve always had an air of magic for me – and yes, that might be because I spent the first seven years of my life believing they contained flourishing communities of masterfully hidden fairies… But that sense of mystical wonder has never quite disappeared. Even now I can’t help but marvel at the sheer magnificence of an ageing oak: they seem to defy all logic whilst simultaneously being the most natural thing in the world.
I think many of us take trees for granted, especially if – like me – you grew up in an area where they were abundant. I spent my childhood climbing trees or playing hide-and-seek in Hampshire’s beautiful New Forest, and during my teens the woods were a place for parties and camping and mad bike rides. When I set off for University and experienced proper city living – or as far as the cobbled streets of Canterbury can be called ‘city living’ – I missed the woods almost as much as I missed my family!
When I had the opportunity recently to attend a work conference that was all about trees, I’ll admit I was a little excited. The conference was about agroforestry – in simple terms, that means planting trees on farms. It’s an old practice, but one that most of us have never heard of, including me! But if you think about any drive you’ve taken through the countryside….and imagine those lines of hedgerows that neatly separate one field from the next…that’s one of the oldest and most basic implementations of agroforestry, and it happens all across the UK.
But agroforestry goes a lot further than hedgerows, and some of the most beneficial forms of it are few and far between in this country. But, as I learned from the conference, they can have hugely positive impacts on biodiversity, carbon management, animal welfare and even farm profitability.
Anything that incorporates trees and farming counts: from hedges to orchards to woodland species, and they can be used alongside both crops and livestock. One of my favourite examples is using trees as shelter for hens. Domestic chickens (the ones we see on farms) are descended from junglefowl and, as the name suggests, junglefowl live under trees. So, by nature, chickens love trees – at odds with the image most of us have of a chicken’s farmyard home. But farmers who give their hens access to trees will tell you they much prefer a good peck and forage beneath the shelter than in the open – and happy hens are healthy hens. It works for sheep and cattle too. One farmer at the conference stated unequivocally that agroforestry had singlehandedly improved survival rate in his lambs, thanks to the protection from the elements provided by the canopy.
Planting trees between crops is another example and the main benefit here is making better use of natural resources. The tree reaches up further and wider to make use of sunlight; its roots go deeper and spread further to gain water; and the crops get to steal some of those benefits from the soil to make them stronger and more nutrient-rich. And if the agroforestry system uses nut or fruit trees then you get an extra crop to put on the market – bonus!
For me, above all else, agroforestry is part of the answer to tackling climate change, thanks to trees’ ability to store carbon. Combined with the benefits on-farm – soil health, productivity, biodiversity – they can make a valuable contribution to more sustainable farming practice. And with farming being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, finding ways to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint is absolutely critical. Government is only now starting to formally recognise the role agriculture must play in tackling climate change. Innovative and accessible solutions will be needed to help all farmers become more environmentally-friendly, and options like agroforestry will need strategic support to bring it into the mainstream. Organisations like the Woodland Trust are supporting progress by offering advice, grant support – and of course, the trees themselves – to farmers, but recognition from central government would give agroforestry a widespread boost and tangible impact.
Not long after Michael Gove was appointed Environment Minister, he made a promise to uphold the Conservative manifesto pledge to reach a target of planting eleven million more trees by 2020. If that promise holds true it’s exciting news, and I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that some of those millions can be allocated for use on farms.
It only took one day at a conference to make me an agroforestry fanatic. And after everything I’ve learned I can’t help realising: I was right, trees are a little bit magical after all…