The England Tree Action Plan - What’s in it for farmers?
DEFRA finally launched their England Tree Action Plan this week and whilst it is tempting to ask why the promised long-term strategy emerged as a three-year plan, I will resist.
At first sight there is much to welcome in the plan with specific actions orientated towards trees and woodlands for nature, timber and people and recognition of the capacity and skills required to facilitate a step-change in tree planting and forestry management.
There’s even a plan to ‘provide financial support for agroforestry’ through the England Woodland Creation offer, which will support natural regeneration as a legitimate approach to ensuring the right trees establish in the right places. And a, slightly vaguer, commitment to ‘work with agricultural tenancy holders to support woodland creation on tenanted land’. Both of which will be appreciated.
But none of this can hide the large hole at the heart of the plan, which fails to recognise the crucial role farmers will inevitably play in a meaningful delivery of the Government’s targets for trees and woodland creation. It is fundamental that farmers feel equipped to take the leadership role in this ‘tree revolution’.
Farmers can lead the tree planting revolution we need
This is because outside of our urban areas and existing forests or woodlands the majority of England is under farming stewardship. It is important we integrate trees and woodland management into the average farm enterprise. Some farmers may take convincing and so getting the messaging right will be critical. Of course bespoke and well-designed grants will help as will some of the proposed changes but I am worried these do not go far enough.
It is worthwhile remembering that, of our sparse woodland cover in England, almost 30% is part of a farm enterprise (379Kha). So farmers are already significant woodland owners but sadly very few integrate the management of these woodlands into the wider farm enterprise or derive direct market benefits from their management.
But imagine if farmers were rewarded for the public benefits that the majority of these woodlands are providing. And if guidance and support were readily available for farmers to use their transferable skills to directly manage this component of their farm. Maybe this would encourage better management of the farm woodland resource in line with the Action Plan specifics for biodiversity, as well as encouraging farmers to plant more woodland in support of its wider aspirations.
This isn’t just about agroforestry, but it has a role to play.
This will also have a positive impact by increasing awareness and uptake of agroforestry systems which requires a willingness from farmers to integrate trees directly into the agricultural system for on-farm and public benefits.
Thankfully, the policy case for agroforestry seems to have been accepted but apart from some early adopter farmers, as covered by this brilliant piece in the Guardian, we have a long way to go in mainstreaming the farm enterprise and implementation case. Understandably, the economic case will be key for farmers and the Soil Association are currently developing a micro and macro-economic modelling for what a ‘farm woodland and agroforestry economy’ will look like.
Perhaps this will finally give the government the confidence to set clear targets for a significant increase in trees in the farmed landscape, in line with the Soil Association aspirations for 50% of farms to be implementing some form of agroforestry by 2040 and for farm woodland areas to double to approximately 750k hectares by 2050.
Farmers need to be in the driving seat
In summary, there is little in the plan designed to encourage farmers into the driving seat of a tree revolution for England – and yet its success, at least in relation to trees in England's farmed landscape - is largely dependent on them. To be charitable, maybe the realisation that the post-Brexit wider changes to incentives for land management in England and the development of the Sustainable Farm Incentive is the real reason that the promise of a long-term strategy turned into a more pragmatic three-year Action Plan. We must seize the chance to get the messaging right so that farmers get on-board and own the strategy. Only with their leadership will the aspirations set out in the vision be realised.
The Soil Association has developed an agroforestry and farm woodland e-learning course for farmers interested in learning more. The course will help you understand
- what agroforestry systems and farm woodlands are;
- the different type of agroforestry systems that are practical for the UK;
- the on-farm and wider environmental benefits of agroforestry systems and farm woodlands;
- the key elements of effective agroforestry and farm woodland design;
- some of the financial benefits of agroforestry and farm woodland systems;
- some wider supply chain and market opportunities for agroforestry systems and farm woodlands; and
- how to begin to develop plans for an agroforestry system and farm woodland.
Find out more using this link.