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 gone away. Even now I can’t help but marvel at the sheer magnificence of an ageing oak tree. 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 by a national park. I spent my childhood climbing trees or playing hide-and-seek in the woods, and during my teens the forest was 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 more than I missed my family (not that I’d ever tell them that!)
When I recently got the opportunity to attend a conference for work that was all about trees, I 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.
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. Next time you’re shopping for eggs, look out for a woodland variety – they’ll be from hens raised in an agroforestry environment! And it works for sheep and cattle too. One farmer at the conference stated unequivocally that agroforestry had singlehandedly improved survival rate in their lambs, thanks to the protection from the elements provided by the trees.
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!
If you’ve been keeping up to speed with Michael Gove’s progress as Environment Minister you may have picked up on his promise to uphold the Conservative manifesto pledge to reach a target of planting eleven million more trees by 2020. That’s exciting in itself, but I’m 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 thinking, maybe trees can perform a little bit of magic after all…