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Trees on farms - helping deliver a sustainable future for livestock farmers and the countryside

Helen Chesshire, Lead Farming Advocate for the Woodland Trust, shares her knowledge about agroforestry and how combining trees or shrubs with agricultural crops or livestock - in the form of hedgerows, shelter belts, clumps or rows of in-field trees, wood pasture and parkland - can deliver benefits for the farming business and the environment.


Agroforestry or silvopasture should be part of every livestock farmer’s tool box. By deliberately integrating trees and shrubs into livestock systems farm productivity, animal welfare and farm resilience as well as the health of the environment can be improved. Agroforestry can be designed to avoid potential trade-offs between food production and other public goods that occur in many modern farming systems. The benefits of silvopasture to farm animals includes; access to shelter in the winter and shade in the summer, encouragement of natural behaviours as well as supplementation of diets with tree browse or fodder.


Flock & Herd Productivity & Welfare

There are a number of situations where a treed sheltered field is invaluable – not least in reducing the risk of hypothermia in new born lambs, improving ewe and lamb bonding and potentially reducing the risk of mastitis in ewes. By creating the right conditions for ewes and young lambs, lamb mortality can be reduced. Studies have shown that in cold, wet and windy weather, lamb losses can be reduced by up to 30% if good shelter is provided.


It is commonly accepted that heat stress results in reductions in productivity for example in lactating cows as well as ability to conceive and that well sited tree shelter could help address this. However, some farmers express a concern about trees attracting flies and consequential disease issues. This may be as a result of too little shade encouraging animals to congregate in a small area. There is anecdotal evidence that walnut trees keep flies away and a dairy farmer in Shropshire is currently testing this out with walnut trees planted outside the collecting yard.


Photo credit: Organic Research Centre


Strategically planted tree shelter belts and wide hedges, have been shown to improve drainage (Pontbren Project) and drier underfoot conditions help to reduce lameness. There is also the opportunity to fence off trees planted around streams and keep livestock away from wet areas where liver fluke thrives.


An overview of The role of trees in sheep farming can be found here including a summary of the research that is currently underway at Bangor University to examine how the strategic placement of hedgerows and tree shelter-belts could improve animal welfare and productivity by maintaining a positive energy balance and providing an alternative source of browse.


Cattle as well as sheep farmers are becoming increasingly interested in tree browse both as a source of fodder but also for its medicinal qualities, you only have to think back to the drought of 2018 when on many farms hedgerows were the only green growth. Levels of nutrition in tree browse can be comparable to other feed crops and can be a particularly good source of minerals. Browsing on condensed-tannin rich leaves offers animals protection against gastro-intestinal parasites. Trees such as willow are rich in salicylic acid, a recognised pain suppressant with anti-inflammatory and mild antibiotic properties (Lindsay Whistance, Organic Research Centre 2018).


Photo credit: Organic Research Centre


New research by the Woodland Trust has shown willow trees could be used to optimise production in lambs due to its particularly high concentrations of cobalt and zinc. The study sampled leaves from three native deciduous species – willow, alder and oak – from three sites across the UK and analysed their mineral, energy and protein content. Willow leaves from all three locations were found to provide sheep with zinc and cobalt at concentrations exceeding the requirement in mg/g of dry matter, in some cases up to 17 times more. This elevated concentration found in willow leaves could actively correct deficiencies of these minerals in grass, meaning farmers could get better growth from their flock by integrating trees on their land. Follow up trials are now underway to test the palatability of willow and its use as a supplement by the University of Nottingham and the Allerton Project.


In the free range poultry sector designing ranges that typically include around 20 percent tree cover has become well-established over the last decade. There is strong evidence to show that tree cover encourages normal animal behaviours such as ranging, reduces stress in the birds and provides increased shade. This results in a lower incidence of Injurious Feather Pecking and has a positive impact on egg quality, with hens laying fewer seconds and white eggs.


Photo credit: Woodland Trust Photo Library


Fighting Climate Change and the Nature Crisis

Agroforestry will be an important tool to help the farming sector meet its commitment to net zero agriculture by 2040. Although a reduction in emissions must always remain the priority, trees on farms will sequester carbon and capture other air pollutants such as ammonia. At the same time they will boost the biodiversity of farms, providing habitats for a wide range of wildlife as well as improving landscape character. Trees also have a role to play in other environmental services such as water management, protecting water quality from pollutants and helping to slow the flow by improving the infiltration of water into the soil.


Where to go if farmers interested in planting

The Woodland Trust has helped hundreds of farmers put more trees on their farms. And we know we need far more to fight climate change and the nature crisis. Our advice is shaped by the best available evidence of what works well for farming and the environment.


Find out about our subsidised schemes and advice here and download the Agroforestry Handbook.


Conclusion

Planting trees on farms has the potential to help farmers meet the demands of a new agricultural policy - delivering public goods whilst improving both the efficiency of production and welfare of farm animals. There is however, a lack of UK based evidence for much of this area and a need to share evidence and best practice with farmers and their trusted advisors if the sector is to capitalise on the benefits.


Photo credit: WTPL/Rory Francis

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