Global reforestation and sustainable farming – 200 million trees for Wales?

By Rob Squires

Scottish agroforestry

Agroforestry (main species silvopastoral system) at Bolfracks Estate, Upper Farrochil, by Aberfeldy. Forestry Grant Scheme. Photographer – Matt Cartney. Crown Copyright.

A recent Guardian article covered a report proposing the planting of one trillion trees over the next 50-100 years, to mop up two-thirds of global carbon emissions. The Global Tree Restoration Potential excludes arable and urban areas from its calculations, but includes grazing land, on which the researchers say trees can benefit sheep and cattle. As the most effective projects cost as little as 30 US cents a tree, the total price could be £240bn.

This may sound like a lot of money, but on the same day as the Guardian article came out I received a petition from Positive Money (who campaign for monetary reform) demanding the Bank of England divest from fossil fuels. It stated: “Since 2009 the Bank of England has created £445bn of new money, in the process termed ‘quantitative easing’.” Reading this put the situation into sharp context for me. If the banks are “too big to fail”, such that £445bn can be whipped up using the government’s “magic money tree”,  then surely the planet is big enough to merit a mere £240bn to put the brakes on the climate crisis? What is more, this would be £240bn globally, so Wales’ share of this would be a drop in the ocean, compared with the bill for bailing out the bankers.

I recently attended a meeting about the Sustainable Farming and our Land, the Welsh Government’s consultation on support to farmers after Brexit. This got me thinking about the one trillion trees and what it would take for Wales to play its part in this, and I was prompted to do some back-of-an-envelope number crunching.

Let us assume 200 million trees[i] would need planting in Wales, for us to achieve our share of one trillion. Using the same planting densities as the report, this will require around 285,000 hectares (ha). Wales actually contains about 1,500,000 ha of grazing land, which is roughly three-quarters of the total land mass of the country. If most of the trees were planted on this land, it would take up about 20% of it. The average holding size in Wales is about 48 ha, and on that basis an average of 6,720 trees will need planting per holding, at a rate of 140 trees per ha.

If planting 200m trees sounds like a tall order, then serendipitously, in the few days I have been writing this blog, Ethiopia has broken a world record by planting an incredible 350m trees in just one day! Their plan is to plant four billion to counter deforestation, and climate change. The surface area of Ethiopia is 53 times greater than that of Wales, so this target equates to pretty much the same amount of additional trees per hectare as Wales.

Tree planting on this scale will have a dramatic impact, both on the natural world and on the livelihoods of farmers and smallholders. For the environment the benefits of reforestation are obvious, providing habitat, increased biodiversity and ecological resilience. The challenge however, is to develop ways in which the rural economy can adapt to such changes, building food security and ensuring financial benefits.

One important aspect of the government’s proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme is that it plans to reward farmers with subsidies for environmental outcomes, such as biodiversity, air quality, and water quality, all of which tree planting can contribute to. Since currently an average of 80% of Welsh farmers’ income comes from the direct payments they receive through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the new environmental rewards are going to be crucial to prevent many farmers from going out of business after Brexit. Tree planting offers much more potential for farmers though, than simply obtaining a replacement subsidy.

The Soil Association’s new Agroforestry Handbook explains the potential of different types of tree farming systems, with advice on implementation, case studies, and market opportunities. The economic case for agroforestry can be considered in three main ways: enhanced ecosystem services; enhanced agricultural outputs; and direct tree outputs.

  • The enhanced ecosystem services that can be achieved are perfect for the Sustainable Farming Scheme, and include carbon capture, biodiversity, rain water retention and soil improvement.
  • A good case study for enhanced agricultural outputs is Welsh sheep and beef farmer Jonathan Francis, who was unable to turn stock into some fields because of rainfall and lack of shelter. With support from Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales) he planted 15,000 trees on his 113 ha farm. He is creating shelter for his stock, and reducing water logging and erosion of the soil, thus reclaiming the land and enhancing his conventional outputs. Meanwhile Pembrokeshire farmer Alex Heffron who has written about silvopasture (the grazing of livestock amongst trees) is applying for funding from Coed Cadw to plant tens of thousands of trees on his land.
  • In terms of direct tree outputs, the Agroforestry Handbook lists a range of potential market opportunities, including timber, fuel, food, leisure, and carbon markets. As well as the direct sales, farmers could choose to reduce costs by utilising their own timber for things like fencing, farm buildings, and fuel.

Within the Sustainable Farming Scheme, in addition to a regular income stream from environmental rewards, farmers will be able to access a wider range of business support such as advice, capital investment and skills development. With such a framework in place, it is feasible that land use can be reformed such that Wales makes a fair contribution to global reforestation, whilst supporting land managers to release themselves from the worst of global market forces, moving  away from a heavily subsidised and precarious place, to a new position of much improved community resilience.

Rob Squires is a web developer and food activist in Aberystwyth.

Both images: agroforestry in Scotland, by Matt Cartney, under a Creative Commons licence

[i]. Global population is currently about 7.72bn (growing by over 200,000 / day!), and the population of Wales is around 3.2m, or 0.041%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant around 410m trees in order to meet its commitment to 1tn trees. This however, is a lot of trees for a relatively small country.

Another way to break it down might be by surface area. The land mass of the entire world is 149 million km², whist the area of Wales is 20,735 km², which is about 0.014%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant about 140m trees in order to fulfil it’s commitment, which seems more do-able.

There are other ways of thinking about this, such as basing the size of Wales’ commitment on the country’s GDP, or on its carbon footprint. If either of these measures were used, then the Welsh commitment to 1tn trees would no doubt be a lot higher than either of the two figures above. To keep things simple though I have chosen a figure of 200m trees, somewhere in between the estimates formed from population and land mass.

Silvopasture – the best of both

By Alex Heffron

Alex Heffron and cowThere is a debate going on that says we should be afforesting the uplands of Wales, in order to give nature a better chance, sequester carbon and improve drainage downstream, amongst other benefits. I’m in favour of all those reasons, but I don’t think we need to choose from a false dichotomy of trees or livestock; we can have both.

Silvopasture, the grazing of livestock amongst trees, provides many of the benefits of both. Hedgerows and shelterbelts are one thing, and very good at that, but there is also the planting of around 1000 trees per hectare, in strips at roughly 10-25m spacings – either following the contour, keyline, or going in N-S or E-W rows. This allows for easier establishment and management and thanks to the ease and cost of electric fencing we can avoid the need for expensive stock fencing. This can also be combined with arable systems as some farmers have already done in the east of England.

In the early years the grass will need to be either mulched, or kept short via mowing, but eventually, after 5 years or so, the livestock themselves will graze the grass beneath the trees. This isn’t the only approach that can be taken – there are other patterns that can be utilised, but this, from our analysis has the most potential and is the easiest to establish and manage. But some of that will depend on the specific context of the farm and the grazing systems in place. All tree-planting – from hedgerows and shelterbelts, to strips and plantation plantings – should be considered. Each farm should choose the approach that best suits them.

Some farmers might be concerned that they will lose much-needed grass, but the loss in grass is not substantial, and on the contrary the trees should improve grass growth (better soil, drainage, aeration, and shelter from wind) and improve livestock health and performance (trees are mineral-rich and provide much needed shelter from wind and rain). Plus trees can make a substantial portion of a ruminant’s diet; this report from the Forestry Commission suggests around 12.5% of dry matter intake for cows, and around 15% for sheep. It’s still early days, with different pioneering farms trying different approaches, as there are many that can be taken, but it seems obvious already that it will become a win-win-win, for farmer, animal and nature. Can we afford not to do it?

Not only do you get the environmental benefit of the trees but there is also an economic benefit. The trees can be managed, for example, using a sustainable coppicing method to produce firewood, woodchip (think bedding and compost) and also managed for fruit, nuts and no doubt other products too such as timber. And of course we still get the economic, ecological and community benefits that are already derived from livestock.

With a little government funding farmers could be encouraged to take up this practice, and help to bring more trees back to not just the Welsh uplands, but the Welsh countryside in general. But we don’t need to wait for government funding because Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales), already provide grants of at least 60%for tree planting.

It is with Coed Cadw we will be placing an application for tens of thousands of trees to be planted across our farm over the next 5 years or so. It’s a big experiment, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes, that hopefully others after us will learn from, but I’ve no doubt whatsoever about the beneficial role they can play in improving our farm from an economic and ecological perspective. Upland farming is not the most profitable form of farming so the extra money provided by this system is sure to be welcome.

It will take some new skills being learnt, or re-learnt, but that’s something farmers have continually had to do anyway as part of a job that in many ways has never changed, and in many other ways is continually changing. Hopefully, talk of the government subsidy to farms that plant trees, sequester carbon, improve water storing, and provide habitat will come to fruition, making silvopasture a no-brainer for farmers on many levels. But even without that subsidy, it makes sense, and for it to be sustainable I think it needs to show it can more than pay its way, otherwise a change of government policy could see the uprooting of the trees planted, which would reverse the benefits. It needs to be maintained long-term. “Pears for your heirs,” as one friend told me recently.

Given the intensity of the debate around ruminants and greenhouse gas emissions, this is one way that farmers can help to nullify that, as several studies show that it’s possible to sequester more carbon than is emitted via silvopasture systems. I think it’s a system where Wales can lead the way, and show to other countries what’s possible. We have plenty of scope to put this method of farming to use and it lends itself well to our landscape. I don’t think it’s a cure-all for all of the environmental challenges we face but along with a return to native, diverse pastures, and an improvement in grazing management, can be a significant step towards a more sustainable and ecologically-sound way of farming.

To find out more about the planting of trees in the uplands of Wales, it’s worth reading this report about the Pontbren Project, a pioneering project led by several farms working together. They experienced economic benefits to their businesses, as well of course, as the environmental benefits.
If you’re interested in discussing this more then comment below and we can chat further about it.

Alex, along with his wife Sam, started Mountain Hall Farm in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire 18 months ago without any previous farming experience. Since then they have been milking cows and letting their animals rule the roost. They run a micro-dairy selling 100% pasture-fed raw Jersey milk and beef directly to their local community. By using the principles of permaculture, holistic management and regenerative agriculture, Alex and Sam hope to build a farm which brings people together through good food with respect for their animals and nature. @AlexHeffron88

Picture: Nigel Pugh