Farmers can boost food production and their incomes by planting more trees, but Defra’s policy consultation largely overlooked the opportunities of agroforestry, argues Labour MEP and EU agriculture spokesman Paul Brannen.
As a Labour MEP I have a very negative view of Brexit. The economic forecasts, especially for my North East constituency, are bad, in fact the worst in the country, which is of course ironic as the North East registered the biggest vote for leave.
If there is a small silver lining to this very big cloud then it is in the area of agriculture, or more accurately, land use.
Outside of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) we have the opportunity to devise our own land use policy and payments which cover food, farming, forestry, the environment and wider community access to our countryside. This is an exciting opportunity to do things better.
The recent Defra consultation document on the future of food, farming and the environment had much to commend it, but rather overlooked the need to increase our forest cover in the UK.
We have some of the lowest forest cover in Europe and yet we are the world’s second biggest importer of wood after China. Not only do we need more timber, we need more trees to soak up more carbon as we work to tackle climate change.
The Government’s current tree planting target is too low. Eleven million trees planted by 2020 may seem a lot, but it is not enough.
Many farmers have an ambivalent attitude to tree planting. Last year at a forestry conference in Scotland, Conservative MSP Peter Chapman, a farmer for 40 years, said, “If you plant trees on your land, it is somehow seen as failure.
“We have to change that mindset. It is not about planting whole farms, just a portion to create a micro-climate to help livestock and provide that extra woodland asset in 20-30 years’ time”.
Scotland currently leads the country on sheep and trees working in symbiosis.
Chapman’s observation that, “It is not about planting whole farms” is crucial for farmers to register.
Not all trees need to be planted as forests. Agroforestry involves mixing trees with crops and/or animals in such a way that one benefits the other and overall production goes up.
The UK’s largest agroforestry holding can be found near Peterborough, where farmer Steve Briggs grows organic oats interspersed with strips of apple trees beneath which meadow flowers provide nectar for bees, giving him a third ‘crop’ – honey.
Simon and Claire Bainbridge, who farm near Wallington in Northumberland, have recently planted trees scattered over several fields to provide cover from birds of prey and thus encourage their 12,000 chickens to wander further from their hen house as they produce organic free range eggs for a major supermarket.
Agroforestry currently accounts for 9 per cent of EU agricultural land, so it is not a fringe activity, although it is in the UK.
More needs to be done to encourage farmers to venture into agroforestry.
Leaving the CAP, a direct consequence of Brexit, and the creation of our own payment system is the ideal opportunity for the UK Government to act, as I set out in my Defra submission which you can read HERE.