Cows browsing-Shropshire.jpg

Shropshire Agroforestry: Trees, hedgerows and cattle

Trees, hedgerows and cattle

Peter Aspin has been farming in Shropshire since 1982.

In this blog he tells us how critical trees are to the welfare of his animals and why agroforestry is at the heart of his business. Find out more about Peter's business at Shropshire Agroforestry Project.


Ever since I began working on farms forty-something years ago, it has been endlessly fascinating to observe how livestock have an instinctive ability to find the most benign area in which to rest in relation to trees and hedgerows once their immediate nutritional demands have been met. The first principle of any livestock production system is that if an animal is standing up it is costing the farmer money, whereas if an animal is lying down it is making money, so the farmer must always maximise the animal’s “down” time. An article I read a while back about a farm in New Zealand emphasised this: a beef and sheep farmer had planted shelter belts at strategic points around the farm which he regarded as extremely beneficial, but he came to retire and inevitably a dairy farmer bought the holding and removed the trees so as to increase the amount of pasturage. But all that he ended up with was a holding capable of maintaining a lower stocking density with far fewer animals than his predecessor - the feed demands of more exposed livestock more than outweighed the extra acreage of feed.

A similar pattern happens at the farm here during the annual inspection – according to organic standards there are too many bovines in relation to the area of land. As far as I am concerned, it is not the management that is at fault but the parameters around stocking density in the standards. At present, they take no account of the shelter and shading provided by the trees and the hedgerows. Without shade and shelter, livestock suffer and in extreme hot or cold weather cattle will succumb. This is reflected by looking into the back of a casualty lorry on a warm summer’s day, or better still having a conversation with the driver, or indeed the colossal losses suffered by some cattle farms attempting to mob stock in the cold winter of 2010-2011.

As every farmer knows, if there is a piece of land persistently flooded, a shallow channel towards the nearest hedgerow will quickly drain it away; here the roots break up the soil, there is no soil compaction and the most fertile part of any field is under the hedge so there will be more invertebrate activity and small mammal burrows. Ever since man began to drain land, and especially since the last war, agricultural policy has been to get rid of rainwater as fast as possible instead of allowing it to percolate downwards gradually with the resulting problems of more frequent downstream flooding. Long-term residents of a water extraction plant near here are very troubled by the subsiding effect it is having on their properties. In other areas some farmers’ boreholes have been redrilled to their limit and have still run out of water. We must look at other ways to drain land and in an agroforestry system where there is no compaction in the rows of trees, this in effect provides a longitudinal (in both senses of the word) drainage system throughout the farm.

cow feeding from a tree

There is deservedly ever more interest in the decline of soil fertility. But all gardeners have long been aware that the finest soil conditioner of all is decomposed leaf litter and in an agroforestry system the amount of foliage drop in autumn is an obvious benefit- larger leaves such as sycamore can form a “mat” which may cause some grass kill if not moved around, whereas smaller leaves especially from leguminous trees are easily incorporated into the soil. Similarly, small branches dropped from the canopy break down and add to the fertility mix. And the long term effect of the decomposition of deciduous foliage is to neutralize soil acidity.

As well as an unerring instinct to find the most sheltered part of a field, livestock have an ability to select which tree foliage to browse and which to reject - it cannot be emphasised enough that what are usually regarded as grazing animals are also browsers. The obvious trees for browsing in the UK are ash, lime and elm, but virtually anything is taken especially when the leaves are young. Ever since beginning the work here, older farmers have related tales of very long, bitter winters following poor summers when they remember their fathers and grandfathers having to cut down branches as fodder, so it is nothing new, it is just that much of the knowledge has been lost. Which is what silvopastoral agroforestry is all about, integrating trees into landscapes to search for new and lost methods which will influence beneficially all aspects of food production and, most importantly, moderate climate on a micro and macro level, the only tool we have to do so.