“FARMING with trees” is the slogan of the Farm Woodland Forum, a phrase that simply and succinctly sums up everything that ‘agroforestry’ is about.
The basic aim of this informal group of famers, foresters and researchers, which held its annual meeting in Perth last month, is to get more farmers incorporating trees onto their land, to the benefit of themselves and the environment.

The value of tree-planting for farmers was explored in depth across 17 presentations on the first day of the event, held at Battleby Conference Centre.
However, the struggle of trying to convince farmers of those same benefits was constantly on the periphery of discussions.

One of the key issues, it seems, is the enduring perception many people have that any land given over to trees can only be used for that purpose.

The task for a group like the Farm Woodland Forum is to make farmers understand that agroforestry is about getting much more out of their land and making their farm more resilient.

This isn’t something that is easily conveyed through complex terminology. However, there are examples that show the approach beginning to take root in Scotland, and one of them was a short drive from the conference centre.

Roger Howieson, of Parkhill Farm in Newburgh, got into tree planting because he wanted to grow a crop he could turn into a marketable product on site.

“Initially, our big thing was beer,” he explained at his farm on the second day of the conference. “The farm has always grown barley, so we thought we might start a craft brewery. We got planning approval, but we couldn’t get the money. Newburgh is famous for its heritage apples, so, as apples grow so well here, we looked into starting an orchard.”

He is now in the midst of planting 10,000 native broadleaf trees across the farm, 750 of them apple trees.

And instead of an orchard, planting has been carried out in an alley cropping formation, which means he can still farm the field as arable land, growing crops like barley, wheat and peas.

“There’s 10 rows of apple trees in the field,” Roger said. “Each row is planted in a three-metre-wide sward of grass. There’s 27 metres between each row of trees, with a metre and a half of grass. That means the arable part is 24 metres, which allows me to get a sprayer down here. We’ve given up just five per cent of the field for the apple trees and we hope to get a crop from them for 30 or 40 years.” 

While his yield from the trees will be less than it would be in an orchard, if he were to plant the crops separately he would need 40 per cent more land. In addition, if his barley crop were to fail one year, he will still have the apples to fall back on, making his business more resilient.

“What we would like to do with the apples is make our own cider, juice or apple cider vinegar,” he said. “We want to produce the product ourselves, from the crop. The fall-back plan is to supply the local distillery or other cider producers.”
He also expects to see benefits for the arable crop by having the trees and, when they’re more established, hopes to let in sheep from a neighbouring farm to graze. Already, his farm has some old established shelterbelts, providing shade for livestock and timber for the farm.

Forestry Journal: Rachel Ives of Kilburns Farm explains her objective for the woodlands.Rachel Ives of Kilburns Farm explains her objective for the woodlands.

Shelter is exactly what Rachel Ives would like to provide for livestock and wildlife in the woodlands of her family’s farm in Gauldry, Fife, the second stop on the Farm Woodland Forum field trip.

In the family for generations, the farm was inhabited but not worked by Rachel’s parents, who operated an ocean salvage company. Now that she’s moving back from Lincolnshire with her husband and children, she wants to make the best possible use of the land.

That means figuring out what to do with around 20 ha of mixed broadleaf woodland, established around 20 years ago through a grant. A huge swathe of it has fallen victim to ash dieback, which several visitors to the site described as the worst they’d ever seen.

Explaining her hopes for the woods, Rachel said: “Under the grant contract, nothing else was allowed to be done with the land and it was basically left alone. It’s now got a good amount of biodiversity, but it requires management.
“I’ve not necessarily got an economic objective. We think it’s beautiful and we want to do the best thing possible for the land. It would be great if we could make a little bit of money, but our intention is to help biodiversity and make the most of it.”

Forestry Journal: Planted 20 years ago, these woodlands at Kilburns Farm have been severely affected by Ash dieback.Planted 20 years ago, these woodlands at Kilburns Farm have been severely affected by Ash dieback.

Following a visit into the heart of the woodlands to see the extent of the dieback problem, and lunch at the farmhouse, forum members offered the benefit of their collective wisdom, laying out a number of options, from clearing out the dead trees and leaving it alone for five years to replanting with a mix of maple and aspen as a suitable ecological replacement for ash.

While Rachel said she hoped to graze sheep in the woodlands, it was suggested cattle might be a better fit.

In any case, Mike Strachan, operations and development officer for Scottish Forestry, thought Rachel’s Chalara ash dieback problem was potentially the “tip of the iceberg”, given the number of similar woodlands planted in the country around the same time. And, with the Scottish Government pushing for further integration between farms and forestry, there was a strong case to be made for encouraging the kind of silvo-pastoral system in woodland Rachel wished to develop.

A day earlier, Kate Holl of Scottish Natural Heritage had brought the afternoon’s session to a close, commenting: “There has been a lot of talk in the news in recent weeks about things like biodiversity, climate change and carbon sequestration. Agroforestry offers huge potential to deliver a lot of these planting targets. It wasn’t even mentioned in Scotland’s Forestry Strategy, which has just been published, and yet we could probably deliver most of Scotland’s targets for planting just by putting trees along field margins and in agroforestry situations.”

Given the scale of the problems the world is facing, she said “we need to think of creative solutions and agroforestry potentially provides a lot of the answers,” and asked: “How are we going to get more agroforestry in Scotland?”
It’s a question that members will continue to ponder and discuss for some time to come.