Getting farmers on board with forestry has long been a problem. This year’s ICF Conference – held in Birmingham – went out to address this. 

FOR as long as anyone can remember, farmers and foresters have been portrayed in opposition. But this year’s Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) national conference went some way to dispelling that myth.

When the nation’s professional foresters converged on Birmingham back in April they were ready to have some frank, honest and engaged discussions about how to integrate more trees into farming. 

Session one – Cultural, institutional and policy issues around land-use change 

Forestry Journal: Sharon Durdant-Hollamby FICFor opening the conference.Sharon Durdant-Hollamby FICFor opening the conference. (Image: Supplied)

The conference kicked off in anger as land use change and the issues around it dominated the opening session of the “landmark conference” (as chair Sarah Henry, the Country Land and Business Association’s (CLA) director general, aptly put it). With speakers having been told not to hold back about the real state of play, they more than embraced that instruction.

Offering the wider perspective first was Emily Norton, head of rural research with Savills Rural Research. A farmer by trade, she drew on her experiences to tell of the importance hedgerows and trees had had for her business. And she looked at the motivations farmers had for increasing tree cover (timber income, carbon storage, etc), compared to the reservations (available land, food production, etc). Emily took it upon herself to bust three of those reservations.

“We do need to get the message out there that a lot of bias we have against tree planting on farm landscape is just that; a bias. The more we understand the reality of the situation, the more we can think of it as an opportunity.”

For instance, it is commonly held that trees devalue land. But, Savills’ research shows forestry land far outstrips the value of farmland in Scotland (£20,000/hectare compared to circa £14,500) and Wales. Only England sees the opposite.

The conference ventured further north for its second speaker of session one, with Bob McIntosh, the Scottish Land Commission’s tenant farming commissioner, looking at the attitudes and traditional divides between the two sectors.

He opened his presentation by saying: “I have to start by recognising that agriculture and forestry in Scotland have not always been the most comfortable of bedfellows. That physical divide we see in the landscape is very much mirrored still by a cultural divide.

We hear too often about which should take precedence as a land use, instead of how they should come together.”

If we are to move on, Bob said, we have to understand policy priorities in Scotland; few farmers and foresters, he suggested, don’t realise how much this is being driven by climate change policy. In this, it is stated clearly that some land will come out of agriculture and woodland will be expanded. Bob went on to show how an increase in forested land would affect existing agricultural land in terms of hectares (around three per cent).

“Change is required. It needs the Scottish Government and the sectors to sit down and discuss how; it won’t happen by itself. Farmers won’t do agroforestry out of some altruistic reason to help the government hit its planting targets. They need more incentives.”

Giving the academic point of view was Dr Ashley Hardaker, a researcher at Bangor University. In his presentation, he explored how we can bring the two sectors closer together, using trees as a value system.

In Wales, perhaps more than any of the other UK nations, there is a “deep seated” opposition to what some farmers see as a “land grab”. But, Ashley said, tree planting has to happen on farms. Stressing the need to remember farmers are “people, who deal with all of life’s challenges”, he said there is generally a hunger for change, but asking them to shift their entire business may not go down well.

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Giving several examples, Ashley showed how the new sustainable farm scheme in Wales can help farmers understand the importance of trees. The scheme also sets a target of 10 per cent tree cover or else limits access to certain grants, which Ashley admitted he had some reservations about.

If Wales is to hit its ambitious planting targets, there remains the need to create more blocked woodland on farmland. “This is a bigger cultural shift, and there are a number of different things that need to happen for that to become a reality.” This includes making more of existing resources, and supporting collective activity.

A brief Q&A followed, with questions including whether or not the Welsh government had scored an “own goal” with regards to the 10 per cent target. “Yes, to an extent, and there are even some reports for farmers not wanting to engage with the scheme,” said Ashley.

Session two – Strategies for making farm-scale forestry viable 

Forestry Journal: Recipients of the Institute’s Award for Excellence, given for exemplary performance in the Institute’s Professional Membership Entry process (l–r): Chris Hardy MICFor (Forestry England), Dr Eleanor Tew MICFor (Forestry England), Fiona Chirnside MICFor (Aberdeenshire Council), John Everitt MICFor (Chatsworth Settlement Trust).Recipients of the Institute’s Award for Excellence, given for exemplary performance in the Institute’s Professional Membership Entry process (l–r): Chris Hardy MICFor (Forestry England), Dr Eleanor Tew MICFor (Forestry England), Fiona Chirnside MICFor (Aberdeenshire Council), John Everitt MICFor (Chatsworth Settlement Trust). (Image: Supplied)

After a spot of lunch and the chance for delegates to explore the conference’s exhibitors, it was back to the presentations, which focused on how to make farm-scale forestry viable.

Helen Browning, the chief executive of the Soil Association, was the first to take to the stage. Taking delegates through her own experiences of agroforestry on her Eastbrook Farm, in Wiltshire, she outlined how to build bridges between farmers and foresters.

“Like many farmers, no one ever taught me anything about trees. But I have always been drawn to wooded landscapes.”

Helen began by looking at the “deep and emotional divide” between farmers and forestry. There exists a narrative of farmers being evicted for tree planting, she said, and it feels like we need some therapy. But this isn’t the case all around the world, with many farms in Sweden focusing on woodland during the winter.

So, what can be done to bridge these divides? Helen’s own experiences could be key.

What started as a curiosity has become hectares of small woodland on Eastbrook, a riparian strip, and space for livestock. It has created employment. It has futureproofed her land for the next generation. It has improved the land’s soil quality.

“It is very much a work in progress. There are big challenges ahead … and we still have lots to learn. But there are lots of opportunities.”

By now it was becoming clear the opportunities for integrating trees onto farmland are multiple. However, there remain risks. Trying to delve into these was Ross Murray, forestry commissioner with the Forestry Commission, who opened by saying he believed “our time has come and we need to seize it”.

But, he began by looking at the “lamentable” planting rates in the UK, and the “lamentable” income from farming, which was set to be almost directly equal to the government support provided in England during 2023 (around £3.5 bn apiece). By 2028, direct support for farmers will come to an end, something Ross urged people to remember.

In terms of risks, disease, investment, and “boredom” can be counted among them, with the planning process blamed for the latter. It is quicker and easier to get permission to build a house, Ross said, than planting permission.

On the other side of the coin, there are “real reasons” to be optimistic. Like others before, Ross listed timber income – while mentioning about the need to change mindsets – and shelter. He also mentioned a forester who rents out part of his woodland to a nudist colony. “They pay him good money and they have a fantastic time.”

From nudist colonies to across the Irish Sea, session two came to a close with the experiences of Dr Jim McAdam, of the Irish Agroforestry Forum. Continuing on the theme of integrating trees onto livestock farming systems, Jim would go on to explore the finer details of how this can be done. Silvopastoral systems can be shown to work, the agricultural scientist said, referencing examples in Northern Ireland where considerable investment had gone into trials in the 1980s comparing them, grassland only and woodland systems.

Forestry Journal: The main conference hall.The main conference hall. (Image: Supplied)

Some of the key results included that sheep carrying capacity was not reduced in the silvopasture until the trees reached 12 years old. It was subsequently recovered by thinning. Individual sheep performance was not affected by the presence of trees, Jim said, and farmers appreciated the flexibility of the system.

Session three – Practical experience of forester on-farm 

In a slight tweak to previous conferences, the day came to a close with a panel discussion. Chaired by Sir Harry Studholme, it featured Abi Reader, deputy president of NFU Cymru (Wales), Andy Gray, chairman of the Devon County Agricultural Association, farmer and Natural Resources Wales board member Geraint Davies, and forester Iain Kyle.

Sticking to the themes on day one, the fascinating discussion touched on silvopastoral systems, how foresters can help farmers take up agroforestry, and the risk of disease and climate change to any trees planted.

“I am very unnerved,” said Harry on that last point. “We are not as alert as we should be to the changes we may see.”

Session four – Working together for multifunctional landscapes 

Forestry Journal: Shireen Chambers MBE FICFor chairing panel session, featuring (l–r) Martin Kennedy (President NFU Scotland), Richard Stanford CB MBE (Chief Executive, Forestry Commission), Tom Bradshaw (Deputy Chair, NFU) and Mark Tufnell (President, CLA).Shireen Chambers MBE FICFor chairing panel session, featuring (l–r) Martin Kennedy (President NFU Scotland), Richard Stanford CB MBE (Chief Executive, Forestry Commission), Tom Bradshaw (Deputy Chair, NFU) and Mark Tufnell (President, CLA). (Image: Supplied)

With a night’s kip under everyone’s belt, it was back to Edgbaston and the big hitters came out for the first panel discussion of the day. By the mid-morning break, Richard Stanford and the NFU’s Tom Bradshaw would have had their say, but it was former ICF executive director Shireen Chambers who was first up.

Explaining how she grew up surrounded by agroforestry “without ever realising”, Shireen touched on the “strong words” of the forestry minister Trudy Harrison in the previous day’s introduction, who had said farmers had a moral obligation to plant trees. 

Without further ado, Shireen welcomed a panel of speakers to the stage, which also included Mark Tufnell, president of the CLA, and Martin Kennedy, president of NFU Scotland. With Shireen putting to the panel some of the concerns raised by the previous day’s presentations, discussion touched on topics such as cultural differences and tree-planting locations.

On that first point, Shireen asked if woodland targets could be met by planting on estates alone, rather than relying on farmland.

“Before looking to create woodland, we probably need to look at if we are managing our existing woodland as best we can,” said Mark. “That’s because there hasn’t been the financial incentive, the training, or the help [historically].”

On the point of cultural differences, Tom said: “If it [tree planting] is something that is done to the farmer, it will never work.” He went on to make a similar point to Mark, suggesting money should be more readily available to help manage existing woodland on farmland.

Moving onto food production, Shireen asked Richard where land for tree planting will come from without impacting on food security (a major concern of the farming community). The FC’s chief executive initially outlined that the organisation had carefully plotted millions of plantable hectares of land that would not affect other sectors.

“If we don’t get this right now, it is going to compound the problem and we’ll have to plant even more,” he added. “We have to be careful we do it properly. Food security is absolutely crucial. Nobody ever talks about timber security, but is it really possible to keep importing 80 per cent of our timber? Oh, and by the way, where we get it from are having their own problems, too.”

The discussion turned to delivery, with Tom making the point that often organisations (and he accepted farmers, too) will claim public money for trees, but not look after them once they have gone into the ground.

“You can get a robot to plant trees,” added Richard. “But it takes a skill to grow them. We are not looking enough at growing trees. You can get a muppet to put a tree in the ground.”

The lively discussion could have gone on for the rest of the day, but it was eventually brought to a close. This gave Judy Ling Wong, honorary president of the Black Environment Network, the opportunity to deliver the day’s first presentation.

Having helped write the Royal Society’s report on multifunctional land use, Judy was better placed than most to try and bring some perspective on the complex issues raised throughout the conference.

Suggesting that the reality of the climate change emergency should mean we all work together to solve it, she outlined how a lack of trust between organisations, groups, and government was getting in the way. Judy went on to detail how we could overcome this and find a common solution.

Session five – Integrating Trees into Profitable Grassland

After setting out a defence of the SRUC’s integration of forestry on farming courses, chair Professor Davy McCracken introduced Tim Pagella. Another Bangor University researcher, he opened by saying he would be “deliberately provocative”, speaking about silvopasture and agroforestry.

Around two thirds of the UK’s 9.34 million hectares of agricultural land is grassland, Tim outlined, saying 547,600 ha of this is silvopasture. If trees were planted on this land, they could provide a high-quality yield, he suggested. But trees have a different role in different niches across any one farm, and the focus should always be on its function (whether that be for shade, or flood prevention, etc).

To fully realise the potential of trees on farmland, Tim outlined four crucial steps we must follow. (1) Shared vision, (2) Changing dialogues, (3) Importance of institutional support, and (4) Supporting success.

Nikki Yoxall loves trees and she loves cows, meaning she was perfectly placed to provide a cattle farmer’s perspective on it all. Overseeing a “holistically managed” 300-acre farm in Aberdeenshire, she outlined how trees have become an integral part of shelter for her 30+ animals.

Through a monitoring system, Nikki and her colleague are able to observe the herd’s grazing levels between wooded areas of the farm and grassland. Like Tim, Nikki told of the important functions the land’s trees– including birch – play in daily agricultural activity, preventing heat stroke in the summer (by providing shade), and providing nutrients (when eaten by the cattle).

“We are so much happier when we have cows in trees,” the head of research for Pasture For Life said.

Offering the Portuguese perspective was Dr Maria Isabel Ferraz-De-Oliveira, assistant professor at the University of Evora, who introduced delegates to the ‘Montado’ system, a “long-lasting, multifunctional silvopastoral” method. Mostly composed of open-canopy woodland – made up of cork and holm oak – and dating back to the 12th century, Montado’s main understorey is used for grazing animals.

Forestry Journal: Professor Cecil Konijnendijk FICFor (Hon) receiving his Honorary Fellowship from ICF President, Geraint Richards MVO FICFor.Professor Cecil Konijnendijk FICFor (Hon) receiving his Honorary Fellowship from ICF President, Geraint Richards MVO FICFor. (Image: Supplied)

A diverse range of activities are carried out on the woodland – which extends between Portugal and Spain – with its cork mostly used for wine stoppers. Dr Maria went on to explain how the site is managed to ensure all of these functions can continue to exist to coexist holistically.

However, it’s not all good news. Montado is undergoing a “silent decline”, losing 5,5000 ha/year through fires, drought and even land-use intensity. To address this, a new pilot management scheme is underway, which should produce results by the end of the decade.

Session six – Natural capital and environment added value

In the conference’s penultimate session, Paul Silcock, managing director of Cumulus Consultants, began by exploring the benefits of natural capital. After giving a brief overview of what exactly it is – essentially, assets such as woodland that can have a monetary value by providing ecosystem services – Paul detailed why it is important in a forestry/agroforestry setting.

Due to climate change, pests and disease, and trade rules (among other factors), land-based businesses are changing. With larger companies looking at how to move away from traditional revenue streams (such as oil), environmental assets are increasingly in demand. By taking advantage of this, foresters/agroforesters can essentially futureproof their land.

Turning the discussion to water management with regards to trees, Dr Jenny Knight – an interdisciplinary rural researcher at Stump Up For Trees – first explained how there remains a “significant gap” in our understanding of the role they play in relation to water on farmland.

Using several examples in Wales, Jenny outlined how every decision made by land managers is connected, especially when it comes to water. “We don’t have a choice about integrated management,” she said. “We are just choosing whether or not we are engaging with it.”

Urging ICF members to be more active in engaging with all stakeholders within their river catchment area, Jenny said this would unlock benefits for everyone, and make it far easier to start conversations around tree planting. She even suggested foresters could put benefits beyond forestry at the top of their list of priorities.

Last but not least was St Andrews University’s Professor Sir Ian Boyd, who wanted to take a long-term view of how to manage the UK’s land. Outlining a recent Royal Society report, he detailed how it had asked us to “shift the value” our land is held in, bidding to get the conservation started on a wider scale.

Of course, tensions exist when it comes to anything to do with land use (as the conference had already explored in some detail), but the report endeavoured to overcome these barriers by offering five recommendations, including: 

  • Land use decision-making needs to embrace a “multifunctional approach” that considers multiple land-based outputs. 
  • Research and innovation is needed to improve the sustainable productivity of land-based outputs.

Session seven – Where do we go from here?

Forestry Journal: Sir Harry Studholme FICFor (Hon) closing the conference.Sir Harry Studholme FICFor (Hon) closing the conference. (Image: Supplied)

Bringing the event – which was widely hailed as a resounding success – to a close, keynote speaker Fiona Lickorish, strategic foresight specialist, set out several key themes for guests to consider going forward. This included gene editing, AI, and generating a better public understanding of planting and felling.

In the conference’s final remarks, Sir Harry Studholme summed it up perfectly.

“We have to be wise going into the future.”