Soil Association Scotland highlights the benefits of Agroforestry

24 October 2013

Soil Association Scotland’s Future Farming programmes - Future Proofing Scotland’s Farming and the Scottish Farming Innovation Network - both held successful events last week highlighting the benefits of agroforestry, the practice of using trees on farms to enhance productivity, water, soil and wildlife as well as provide timber products.

Stephen Briggs, Abacus Consultant and Nuffield Scholar, shares his thoughts after speaking at two Soil Association Scotland Agroforestry events last week.

Trees: a valuable crop - Management and planting for livestock and arable production

Thursday 17th October, Falkland, Fife
The first agroforestry workshop contained a great deal of discussion on the merits of agroforestry, and the potential benefits of increased productivity and improved resource use efficiency. Policy is a shifting quicksand at the moment: The EU, having recognised the positive benefits of agroforestry, has built it into CAP reforms. It has eligibility as a greening option and provision of pillar II funding under article 22. Scotland and England differ in terms of national implementation however. England is reluctant to include agroforestry in schemes citing a lack of industry need - this is frustrating.
Scotland on the other hand is looking at agroforestry as an option for addressing greening in Eastern crop areas, while in mixed and upland situations there is real potential for greater allowance of woodland grazing systems to be widely adopted, or even conversion of poorer plantation woodland to agroforestry at 400-150 trees per ha with reinvigorated forage production and reintroduction of grazing.

The afternoon was spent looking around the Falkland estate. There is huge potential for integrated land use development, including both silvoarable and silvopasture systems. Discussion ranged from tree type to markets and even green burial opportunities.
A site was visited that was classed as a typical 'grant farmed' forestry site. Now containing low quality oak and spruce (which missed being harvested as Christmas trees), the site is now rather neglected and the consensus view was to heavily thin all spruce and around 50% of the oak to convert site to a woodland grazing system.

Farming with Trees: Three Dimensional Management for Multiple Outputs and Improved Livestock Production

Friday 18 October, Glensaugh Farm, near Laurencekirk
Glensaugh Farm is an upland research site operated by the James Hutton Institute (formerly the Macaulay Institute), which has done extensive research into silvopasture. The 25 year old upland agroforestry trails have looked at various species (Sycamore, Pine etc) at a range of densities from 400 - 100 trees per hectare.
One of the benefits that the research has demonstrated is that sheep graze among trees in bad weather, which results in improved live weight gain rather than just maintaining condition in the open during poor weather.
As we walked round the site we saw marked differences in shelter, understory grass productivity and the impact of leaf fall on grass production between different areas of tree density and age. Some of the trees are larger and denser, with greater leaf litter which allowed less light and less grass growth – and as a result became less attractive to sheep. It was recognised that these trees should have been pruned and thinned earlier in the rotation to maintain grass productivity.
Mixed species of trees with different species in rows may result in a multi age structure and differential canopy structure, which would result in leaf drop over a more prolonged period allowing greater ground forage production.
There was lots of discussion regarding agroforestry management, design and species composition, and recognition that planting a dense canopy (c 400 trees per hectare) encourages more rapid growth of tall trees which can be thinned to c. 200 trees per hectare and grazing maintained once the trees were older.

Both events were very well attended with informative discussions and lots of questions.  The concept of 3 dimensional farming and thinking about multifunctional outputs was a common theme on both days.  Rather than output per ha (a 2 dimensional concept), perhaps we should be thinking about output per cubic ha! There is lots of space to farm above the ground - and it’s rent free.

You can see Stephen Briggs’s Nuffield Report here - Agroforestry: a new approach to increasing farm production

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