The Potential of Agroforestry in UK Agriculture

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The environmental benefits of agroforestry are well researched and are understood to positively contribute to biodiversity, soil health, carbon capture and catchment wide flood management; however, less is known about how agroforestry impacts on profitability and operational efficiencies, particularly from a UK perspective.

The Potential of Agroforestry in UK Agriculture

To date, the uptake of agroforestry in the UK remains considerably lower than in other temperate countries, but with a greater emphasis on the balance between food production and environment, we could see more interest in this in the future.  

Agroforestry is not simply just trees on farms, it is a multi-functional land use system that combines traditional agricultural practices with trees on the same piece of land, with a view to enhancing ecological and/or economic outputs. A research project at Bangor University, with funding from the Woodland Trust, has been investigating the impact of such systems on temperature regulation in sheep and the effect this has on farm productivity.

There are two predominant agroforestry systems in the UK; silvoarable and silvopastoral.  Silvoarableagroforestry is characterised by evenly spaced tree rows with an arable crop in the alley between. Silvopastoral agroforestry is where trees are introduced to forage-based production systems in widely spaced, uneven intervals.  Hedgerows and shelterbelts planted to benefit livestock and mitigate environment issues are also examples of agroforestry in action and it is this system that has been utilised by researchers in Wales.

What is the opportunity? 

Agroforestry could be one opportunity to explore the potential to help maximise economic output of land, whether through diversified business opportunities from tree crops such as fruit or nuts, or as a way to improve the efficiencies of existing enterprises, for example by providing shelter for livestock. 

Research by the MacAulay Institute and Bangor University have shown that trees provide shelter from adverse weather conditions that an increased core temperature meant more energy could be routed to production, resulting in reduced lamb mortality, an extension to out wintering periods and a reduced requirement for supplementary feeding. It also increases pasture yield by reducing the effects of wind, which has been found to impede plant cell expansion.

Overcoming the challenges of agroforestry

There are a number of practical and policy challenges to the increased role of agroforestry, and a number of actions from government to farm level are needed to support uptake of the system, including:

  • Practical research to demonstrate tangible operational and economic benefits and communication of these benefits to farmers;
  • Providing the right policy and support mechanisms to facilitate new uptake;
  • Including agroforestry as an option in a results orientated support scheme to encourage uptake of agroforestry systems; and
  • Building a critical mass of farm innovators to demonstrate benefits to peers.

Currently, the only capital and revenue support available for farmers to implement agroforestry systems is provided by Scottish Government, Welsh Government or through the Woodland Trust on a project by project basis.  The Scottish and Welsh Governments incentivise the integration of trees with existing upland sheep enterprises by providing both capital and 5-year revenue support with little or no claimed impact on BPS.

Future of agroforestry

If agroforestry is to become a more mainstream farming system, a better understanding of the environmental, economic and operational benefits is needed.  The conditions also need to be created to reduce risk from the farmers’ perspective.  Opinion surveys undertaken both in the UK and across the EU substantiate the argument that farmers require a financial safety net to underpin decisions to change farming systems to deliver positive environmental impacts. 

With the UK’s imminent exit from the EU, and the direction of travel outlined in the Agriculture Bill towards greater emphasis on environmental benefits and provision of public goods, farmers could be considering agroforestry as part of the mix when reviewing future opportunities. ADAS can help to evaluate the costs and benefits of introducing an agroforestry enterprise on the farm.

For more information about the opportunities offered by agroforestry systems, please contact Kathleen Wolton in our Agriculture and Land Management team. 

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