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Farmers tree dilemma: If we plant woodland, can we take a cash hit or will it be a problem for farmers? Farming | Farming
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Farmers tree dilemma: If we plant woodland, can we take a cash hit or will it be a problem for farmers? Farming | Farming

Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) chairman Martin Lines

The uncertainty surrounding the government’s plans for subsidies based in protecting nature is causing farmers to put off planting trees. This delays the UK’s efforts at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stemming the decline of farmland wildlife.

Under the post-Brexit subvention regime, new farm payments are expected to begin in 2024. However, farmers fear that if they don’t plant trees now, they won’t get credit for it when the new schemes begin. They could lose their subsidies if they plant more trees now.

Ministers have repeatedly stressed that future payments will be based on the principle public money for public good, which means that farmers will receive payment for taking care the land and wildlife under ELMs. But farmers have informed the ObserverFour years after its promise by the government, too little information is available about the new system.

This leaves farmers in uncertainty. Farmers could lose any existing subsidies, known as basic payments, if they plant trees on land that is currently being used for food production. Many farmers are also bound to stewardship agreements with government. These agreements provide special subsidies for good environmental management. These agreements are so rigid that farmers can’t plant trees because it would be a violation of their agreement.

Martin Hole, a Sussex livestock farmer, said that although we are grateful for the stewardship payment, it is difficult to change them. Farmers are in a difficult situation. This is what I am seeing, and many others. We want to plant trees but may face financial penalties if this happens.

Hole wanted to increase the amount of woodland on his farm by three times, but couldn’t make the finances work. This would require him to redraw his current arrangement of stewardship and he is not sure if he will receive any future support.

Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) chairman Martin Lines
Martin Lines, chair of Nature Friendly Farming Network Photograph: NFFN/PA

Richard Bramley, an Arable Farmer from South York, who chairs National Farmers Union’s environment forum, is facing a similar dilemma. He stated that the government had not yet provided details on how farmers would be encouraged in the future to plant trees or hedgerows. There is not enough information. Planting trees takes time and capital. You want to do it right.

Trees are an integral part environmentally beneficial farming. They provide habitat for wildlife, prevent flooding, store carbon, and clean the air. They are also a benefit to farmers as they provide shade and shelter for livestock and encourage pollinators.

However, planting trees takes significant investment. Rhys Evans, a South Snowdonian beef and sheep farmer, is planting 1km worth of hedgerow. The fence poles cost 3 each, and 30 for corners. That’s before you add the cost of the 7,000 saplings needed and labour. It’s very expensive. It will have long-term benefits and we want to do so, but many farmers will be less proactive, he said.

Martin Lines (chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network) stated that farmers are increasingly aware of the many benefits of trees and hedgerows but need more encouragement in order to plant. He said that there were mixed signals. We need more assurance from government.

Farmer Hywel Morgan
Farmer Hywel Morgan in the Brecon Beacons. He stated that many farms were being purchased by corporations in order to offset carbon emissions through the planting of forests for carbon credits.

Agroforestry, which combines forestry with food production, is also being discouraged by organic farmers. This involves growing trees that produce organic nuts or fruit in between crops or pastures. Guy Singh-Watson, founder Riverford, the vegetable boxes company, stated that some of these trees aren’t native. They are European or American and therefore might not be required to plant native species. The government has shown little interest to agroforestry generally.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs highlighted its scheme for farmers to plant as few as one hectare of trees. A spokesperson stated that landowners and farmers can take up grants like the England Woodland Creation Offer now to be able to transfer into future environmental management schemes at agreed points without having repay their current funding.

Farmers said that the woodland creation program was not appropriate for all farms as it was only intended to benefit those who could afford to cut significant areas of their production. Many are also worried about what could happen if the trees were destroyed by storms, deer, or rabbits. In this case, they could be held responsible for the cost of replanting the woodland. Even in the best circumstances, up to one in four trees may need to be replanted.

Farm subsidies are a policy that is devolved across the UK. However, Wales and Scotland face similar problems. Hywel Morgan, a farmer on a hill in the western Brecon Beacons told the Observer Corporations bought many farms in the area to grow carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions. What about the family farms that want to keep going? I don’t see why planting these trees, but then importing food, makes sense. [for the environment]. I would like to grow trees, but also to farm.

Ministers must act quickly, said Ben Raskin of the Soil Association’s horticulture/agroforestry department. This is a long-term and complex issue. However, they shouldn’t make us wait until we have the perfect solution. We would appreciate some interim help, at the very least, in agroforestry/hedgerows. Farmers want to do more now.

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