Support UK farmers to meet climate targets, ministers told

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Nigel Noyes/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Nigel Noyes/Alamy

Farmers need more support from the government to plant the trees necessary to meet the UK’s climate targets, ministers have been told, as they consider wide-ranging changes to farming payments after Brexit.

Tree-planting is expensive, difficult and requires patience as the trees take years or even decades to yield commercial returns. Farmers and green campaigners are concerned that they will be left out of government plans to bring in a new interim subsidy system – called the sustainable farming incentive – to tide farmers over between the end of European subsidies this year, and the phasing in of new environmental land management contracts in 2027.

The Soil Association is calling for clarity on how the sustainable farming incentive will encourage tree-planting, and also urging the government to include agroforestry – where trees are grown among or alongside crops, rather than in separate plantations – in its plans.

Most of the UK’s tree strategy is focused on planting new forests, or extending existing woodlands. But where trees can be planted alongside crops, they provide additional benefits such as more wildlife habitats, reduced water use and better carbon dioxide retention in the soil.

Ben Raskin, head of horticulture and agroforestry at the Soil Association, said: “Planting more trees on farms can be a win-win for climate, nature and health, and would support the huge ambition of the government’s national tree strategy.

“It seems a no-brainer for the government to provide a supportive policy framework and more clarity on payments, to increase the uptake of agroforestry.”

Tree-planting rates have fallen behind government goals, but if the UK is to meet its long-term aim of net zero emissions by 2050, about 1.5bn new trees will be needed, according to the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s statutory advisers. Only 13% of the UK’s land area is made up of woodland, far below the European average of about 38%.

David Wolfe and his brother manage Wakelyns, a 22.7-hectare (56-acre) farm in Suffolk planted by his parents in 1994 as an example of how agroforestry can work. Crops including wheat, lentils and squash are planted in north-south alleys with trees between them.

Harvesting among the trees is made easy by the alley layout, and the trees stop soil erosion, help retain water in the soil and provide a habitat for wildlife. They also constitute a crop in themselves, including cherries, walnuts, figs and apricots, as well as trees for timber and coppiced willow and hazel for thatching, fencing and fuel.

Wolfe is concerned that the government will provide incentives for farmers to plant new trees but leave out farms such as Wakelyns that have long grown trees. “Most incentive schemes are for farmers to change what they’re planting, but where you already have changed practices, you need support to maintain them,” he said.

Related: Tree planting 'has mind-blowing potential' to tackle climate crisis

Planting the right trees on farms could boost farm productivity by about 30%, according to Soil Association estimates, as well as capturing carbon dioxide, improving soil health and providing improved habitats for wild plants, insects, birds and other wildlife. The group conducted a survey of 346 farmers that found many would be interested in growing more trees, but felt there was not enough support from the government.

Andy Dibben, head grower at the 600-hectare Abbey Home Farm in Gloucestershire, started planting trees among his 6 hectares of organic vegetables three years ago. His aim is for the trees to provide shelter from the wind and protect against soil erosion, as well as a habitat for insects, birds and small mammals that keep down pests, instead of resorting to pesticides.

He warned that ongoing support is needed to help farmers growing trees. “There’s a lot of talk about mass tree-planting, but the question is, how many of those trees will survive to full maturity? They need to be managed over years to get the full benefits,” he said.

Tom Fairfax, who runs a mixed farm, the Mindrum Partnership on the Cheviots in Northumberland, said: “Government policy on agroforestry is often incoherent when applied in context – I recently discovered that, like many landowners, I have been implementing agroforestry for over 50 years without realising it. I’ve implemented much of my agroforestry in spite of, rather than because of, government policy.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The environmental land management scheme will create cleaner, greener landscapes, helping build towards the government’s tree planting goals and net zero commitments.

“We have been working closely with farmers and land managers to consider how agroforestry can fit into the new scheme, and how we can reward them for an array of environmental work, such as planting and maintaining trees.”