In addition to looking attractive, trees and hedgerows can help to sustain a farmer’s livelihood as well as the landscape, says Tim Field
Restoring the patchwork quilt may be a guilty government’s attempt to repair the landscape or it could have great benefits for farm businesses. Tim Field decides whether new trees and hedgerows are sustaining farmers’ livelihoods.
Country types see hedgerows as opportunities: for a tricky jump, for a flushing point or for an excellent wild fruit jam. Follow the 7 best recipes for your hedgerow harvest for teas, tipples, sauces and jams.
TREES AND HEDGEROWS
The cynic in me looks at a young hedgerow, copse or shelter belt and thinks “subsidy”. It’s just a government’s guilt-ridden attempt to rectify the travesty of grubbing up tens of thousands of hedgerow miles in the destructive heights of the Green Revolution. Here we are, keeping the tax payer and tourists happy by restoring a quaint patchwork quilt over our green and pleasant land.
However, the countryman sees an opportunity: a hedge to jump; a larder to forage; a flushing point or a shelter from icy winds. Trees and hedgerows act as the natural corridors to connect on-farm habitats with neighbouring features and beyond. They have heritage value, with regionally distinctive architecture that creates an impenetrable barrier of uniformly laid hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, dog rose or field maple. Hosting the Cotswold Hedgelaying Championship this winter has been a reminder for me of a farm’s affinity with trees and shrubs.
This is all very well but how do a few trees and hedgerows sustain a livelihood as well as a landscape? After all, the norm is to advise conventional farmers to refrain from spraying conservation headlands along field margins under the pretence they are the least productive zones of an arable field, suggesting hedgerows might inhibit rather than improve crop yields. Don’t get me wrong, headlands have been an excellent initiative but this attitude implies hedgerows are nice to have but not essential and we lose sight of their wider value in production.
THE BENEFITS FOR LIVESTOCK
In livestock systems, the benefits of hedgerows and trees in providing shelter are fairly apparent. When maintained, hedgerows can make the difference between housing stock through the winter or leaving it on the hill. Coupled with the right choice of breed – for instance, a tough native suitable for the land – a hedgerow can be more cost effective and longer lasting than housing so is a sound investment. I am always intrigued on a cold winter’s morning by the big blotch beneath a parkland tree that escapes the touch of Jack Frost; I imagine billions of microorganisms metabolising to provide nature’s underfloor heating. The same trees then offer a refuge from the beating sun; how often do we observe livestock passing a hot summer day or frosty morning beneath a mighty oak?
Poultry and pigs are even more grateful for a canopy and, judging by the popularity of acorn-fed Jamón Ibérico, there is an opportunity to market the meat as something special. However, introducing tree by-products into livestock husbandry isn’t restricted to acorns and pigs. With the nutritional and medicinal value of tree-derived foliage, some experimental stockmen have been reintroducing tree hay into rations, an ancient form of fodder. Woodchip has its uses in bedding as well, not to mention the fuel value.
THE PONTBREN PROJECT
There is no better demonstration of “agroforestry” than the Pontbren Project. Ten neighbouring farmers in upland Powys began an unheralded collaboration by deliberately integrating trees to improve farming efficiency. It was a huge success and caught the eye of researchers and authorities. Beyond the expected business and conservation rewards were unforeseen benefits to hydrology. Surface run-off soaked into the soil 60 times quicker in the hedgerows and trees than in grassland pastures 10 metres away. The compound effect of this across a catchment is what we need in our times of extreme rainfall and flash flooding. Belts of trees and hedgerows planted along the contours slow water down, while probing roots enable more effective infiltration.
In the bareness of winter, cereal fields are at their most susceptible to surface water flow, with topsoil lost and gullies eroded. Strategic planting can help, resulting in less waterlogging and longer windows to work the land without creating the associated degradation and weed burden of saturated ground. Valuable topsoil and nutrients stay in the field. But it isn’t just water that can strip topsoil; wind can play a role, too. Cambridgeshire-based Stephen Briggs is a pioneer of modern agroforestry, with fruit tree breaks between 24-metre cereal strips on his previously wind-swept Fenland farm. The beetle banks are effortlessly integrated, providing a wealth of habitat from which predatory spiders, lacewings and beetles can emerge to clean up a pest burden, thus negating a costly pass with the spray boom.
In the same month we hosted the Hedgelaying Championship, we commissioned a one-megawatt woodchip boiler in the dairy, creamery and farmshop complex. Whether it is fuel, fruit, shelter, bedding or forage, there is a lot to be said for nurturing and harvesting the vertical (trees and hedgerows) as well as the horizontal (fields and pastures). There are plenty of farm business benefits to gain from re-stitching the patchwork quilt.
Follow Tim and Agricology @agricology