CALL position: Trees and woodlands on farms


Agriculture and forestry are often seen as two very different, separate and sometimes even conflicting land uses.

But is this really the case?

CALL believes that there is a place for some trees on almost any farm. There is clear and increasing evidence that trees on farms actually help the overall farm enterprise in terms of animal heath, soil protection, economic viability, emissions reduction, runoff prevention, biodiversity enhancement and human health and wellbeing.

Let’s have a look at some of these areas.

The most obvious and immediate way that trees help farm viability is through the grants and premia that are available as incentives for afforestation. These supports have been paid out for many years and have been the driver behind the increase in forestry in Ireland from an all-time low of 1% at the beginning of the 20th century to today’s coverage of almost 12%. This is still well below the European average forest cover (38%). These economic supports are now more attractive than ever offering, in most cases, 100% support at establishment stage and attractive annual premiums for up to 20 years thereafter.

As well as that, of course, trees produce timber and the demand for timber is constant. This demand will probably increase as timber replaces carbon intensive products such as steel and concrete in construction. Firewood is also in demand and is a valuable use of thinnings from woodlands. The replacement of emission heavy coal and oil by sustainable woodfuel is a net gain to the environment.

Trees on the farm also provide shelter for buildings and livestock. This may become even more important as extreme weather events increase in number. Planting a shelterbelt of trees, for example, gives protection that could reduce lamb losses by up to 30% and increase overall productivity.

Studies also show that farmers who use the silvo-pastoral agroforestry system, significantly extend their grazing periods and reduce fodder costs. This is because the trees protect both the grazing animals and the grassland from the elements – grass grows longer and animals can stay out longer. There may be no significant loss in overall grazing if trees are planted with care and attention.

Tree leaves contain a range of minerals that are vital to animal health. For example willow leaves have high levels of zinc and cobalt, and allowing animal’s access to these forage possibilities can reduce the need for supplements and licks. Have you ever seen the way sick cows or sheep will eat ivy leaves?

Another important protective service that trees provide is to the soil. The canopy and the roots of the trees stabilise the soil and soften the eroding effects of heavy rain and wind. The presence of trees increases percolation of water into the soil, and so has a powerful effect on limiting runoff from land. Creating woodland between the field edge and a river can reduce sediment run-off by 90-100%, nutrient losses by 20-80%, and reduce pesticide loss in run-off by 60-100%.

In this way trees improve water quality in rivers, streams and lakes. This is of course vital for the healthy functioning of ecosystems but also vital for human water supplies and to those of us who seek out these places for fishing, boating or just to relax beside clear unpolluted water.

The importance of this recreational use of the wooded landscape was seen during the pandemic when thousands of people used these places to rest and relax and get away from the stresses of lockdown life.

Time spent among trees can have a calming effect on humans and some farmers that have planted notice this benefit in themselves and in their families.

As the poet Mary Oliver says

“When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily”.

This connection to the trees is reflected in the many many placenames in Ireland that allude to trees or woods, and the enduring allure of fairy trees.

Trees can nourish us in other ways also. There is an interest, probably for the first time in Ireland, in wild food harvesting and especially mushrooms from woodlands. This has the potential, given the proper management, to be an important economic asset. In Andalusia in Southern Spain, an estimated 9000 tonnes of wild edible mushrooms, with an approximate value of €43 million are harvested by foragers.
Other potential food products from forests are of course nuts and fruits, for example hazel nuts, apples and the reliable blackberry.

Bees naturally live in hollow trees in forests. Hollow trees are not so common nowadays and a specially made log hive is a good alternative and guarantees a healthy, stress free population of pollinator bees in your woodland. Conventional honey producing hives can also be dispersed through your woods offering another possible income stream as well as enhancing overall biodiversity.

Trees and woodland clearings on the farm also greatly enhance the general biodiversity of the farm by providing nest sites for birds, shelter for animals and a haven for wild flowers.

And of course, carbon sequestration! Trees capture and store carbon very efficiently. In fact growing trees is recognised as one of the most efficient and helpful measures in terms of climate change.

“At a global scale, reforestation has been identified as the land-based strategy with the greatest potential for climate mitigation”
“Planting trees offers the biggest and cheapest way to slow the climate crisis. We must act quickly” (Grissom et al. PNAS, 2017, 114 (44) 11645-11650.)

In the Republic of Ireland, agriculture accounts for 59% of the total land area – well above the European average of approximately 40%. Of this agricultural land, approximately 80% is devoted to grass (silage, hay and pasture). It seems that all of this agricultural production could be enhanced by the well planned planting of trees. The Irish Government forestry policy reflects this and talks of forests as a symbol of the transformational social, economic and environmental changes needed in this era of climate change.

But rather than blocks of forestry and blocks of agricultural land, perhaps the near future holds more a picture of a mosaic of fields and woodlands that complement one another. A landscape where trees and woodlands are intimately mixed and both systems are interdependent and seen as complementary parts of one integrated whole.

They support one another, offer resilience in the face of climate change, financially support farm families and enhance rather than degrade the environment. A food production system that results in any long term degradation of the environment, whether that is through soil erosion, water pollution or biodiversity loss, is by definition , not sustainable. And there are a growing number of examples of farms where production and environmental integrity are no longer competing forces but rather integral facets of the one sustainable land use model. Not everyone will want to plant “forestry” but nearly all farms have room for at least a few trees.

Whether you call it agriculture, forestry, trees on the farm, organics, permaculture, close to nature farming, agroforestry, regenerative, sustainable or whatever, the tendency is towards integration, diversity and balance.

Food production and quality is enhanced by cooperating with nature. Agriculture and forestry can work together to create a sustainable, beautiful and productive environment. Perhaps in the end it is all about reconnecting the threads and rediscovering that everything is connected and that everything plays a vital (if sometimes invisible) role and that nature is not to be mastered but worked with. Perhaps we begin to see also that technology will have a role in mitigating the worst aspects of climate change but that really it is more about an attitudinal change, a reconnection with nature and a taking of our place as a cog in a bigger wheel rather than the drivers of that wheel.

Images are taken from Teagasc Daily Article.