Tree planting on farms could play a crucial role in helping the UK meet its target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 says a panel of experts.
But suggestions that much of the planting could take place on farmland were immediately met with a warning that it should net be at the expense of food production.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) suggests some 30,000 hectares of woodland should be planted annually.
And it estimates that could increase to 50,000ha if other carbon reduction targets are not met.
The committee says the proportion of Britain covered by woodland needs to rise from 13 per cent to 17 per cent.
For the past decade plantings have varied between just over 5,000ha and 13,000ha, with latest figures suggesting that 13,400ha were planted in the year to March 2019 – most of that in Scotland.
Landowners planted 22 million trees in Scotland last year, smashing their targets.
The last time the UK topped the 30,000ha target for plantings was 30 years ago in 1988 and 1989; the last time plantings topped 20,000ha was 1995.
The CCC is calling on the Government to develop a strategy swiftly and ensure that farmers were encouraged to get involved.
Explaining the proposed planting figures, Ewa Kmietowicz, transport and agriculture team leader for CCC, said: “It takes time for trees to grow and absorb carbon. There are many high up-front costs to planting trees. The Government needs to get farmers engaged in this.”
But NFU deputy president Guy Smith said while tree planting played a crucial role in the union’s vision of the future, it should not diminish the nation’s ability to produce food.
He said the NFU proposed a threepart strategy that included maintaining and planting new trees and hedgerows; improving farming’s productive efficiency and boosting our production of renewable energy:
He added: “This should not mean curbing UK food production and we certainly should not be exporting our production abroad to countries where they do not have the same environmental conscience.
“It will be a challenge and we are clear that we cannot address this in isolation.
“We urge Government and other stakeholders across the food chain to work with us to help deliver our net zero aspiration, alongside producing high quality, affordable food for the nation”.
For The Woodland Trust, chief executive Beccy Speight said the situation offered a potential ‘win-win’ as it could help tackle the climate change and natural environment crises together, and that tree planting could provide a huge part of the solution.
But she warned it would need to happen faster and at a far greater scale than ever before, and be sustained over several decades.
Helen Chesshire, the Woodland Trust’s farming adviser, suggested the increase in woodland could be achieved in a number of ways.
She said: “The extra woodland could be in the form of forestry, onfarm woodlands, hedgerows, agro-forestry, urban tree planting and natural regeneration.”
She views agro-forestry as a key option as it could increase the amount of woodland without reducing agricultural production.
But Defra rejected the technique as a viable alternative in 2009, when it did not take up the relevant options within the Common Agricultural Policy because it said there was not enough interest in the idea.
Agro-forestry is the integration of trees and shrubs into farming systems, and includes traditional features such as shelter belts and wood pasture.
It also includes innovative systems such as alley cropping. This entails planting trees in rows across fields, which produce an income from fruit, nuts, biomass from thinnings and, in the longer term, timber.
The trees also create a microclimate that helps protect the crops, slows windspeed and water movement, while stabilising the soil. They also supply shade, shelter and fodder for livestock, while also providing habitat for wildlife, including beneficial insects.
“Agro-forestry has to become a mainstream land use. It will help support a more sustainable agricultural industry as well as delivering a range of public goods,” added Ms Chesshire.
“Farmers should be encouraged to do it and there should be no barriers to involvement. Defra should be providing relevant advice and support.”
The Soil Association agreed there had been little support from Government, but that agroforestry could bring productivity and animal welfare gains.