Although agroforestry systems are already widespread in many parts of the world, a number of UK landowners and farmers are hesitant to make changes to their operations.
What is agroforestry?
Agroforestry is the practice of blending forestry and agricultural practices that benefits people, wildlife, and the environment.
This may mean growing trees and crops on the same piece of land. Or allow animals to roam, feed and shelter in wooded areas.
This differs from traditional forestry and agriculture by focusing on positive interactions between practices rather than operating them separately.
Because it is important?
Agroforestry increases the resilience of the land and makes it less dependent on oil and chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides. This means that it is better able to cope with weather extremes, such as wetter winters or extreme dry spells in spring and summer.
Healthier soil stores, or sequesters, more carbon, keeping it out of our superheated atmosphere.
Agroforestry can also prevent soil compaction, a complex problem faced by farmers in which soil, crops, weather and machinery interact to create impermeable layers within the soil that restrict water and nutrient cycles. The combination of growing trees and grazing animals helps prevent this and protects the soil structure.
Agroforestry is beneficial to biodiversity as animals and plants continuously interact in natural environments. This leaves room for a variety of other species to become established and leads to a greater diversity of plants within the forests.
Why has UK adoption of agroforestry lagged behind other countries?
Beth Brook, chief executive of The Heart of England Forest, a UK-based conservation and reforestation charity, said: “Although the concept of agroforestry has been a traditional way of managing land efficiently and effectively for centuries and so it is nothing new, in the recent past the UK has lagged behind other countries mainly due to historical land use and agricultural policy.
“At the policy level, forestry and agriculture have historically been treated as two entirely separate issues, and policy and grant funding have reflected this.
“Even though both areas now sit together within the Defra family, they continue to be treated separately, which has unintended consequences when it comes to subsidies being administered for both agriculture and forestry.
“We are hopeful that the new funding for environmental land management, which will start in 2024, will be more progressive than previous funding and encourage the use of agroforestry and other sustainable land management methods.”
What is required for more mixed-use land in the UK?
Establishing examples of high-quality agroforestry in the UK, with practitioners willing to share knowledge and experience, will help increase the practice as farmers learn from each other, says Ms Brook.
“What we need to see is the government giving early and clear signals through the environmental land management scheme that it will support agroforestry and instill confidence in the sector, empowering change from within,” he added.