Twitter LinkedIn

Trees on Farms: increasing agricultural ecosystem services from trees

Macarena Cárdenas, Research Manager at Earthwatch Europe, presents a new policy brief addressing the challenges faced in increasing the uptake and positive environmental impact of tree planting on farms in the UK

November 2021

Despite an extensive evidence base, there is still a huge lack of understanding in the agricultural sector and within Government policy of how trees can work as a sustainable and profitable intervention on UK farms. The case for agricultural tree benefits within future farm funding has yet to be fully won, with a particular lack of understanding about the resourcing barriers that farmers face to plant and maintain trees on their farms. The science clearly shows that tree planting can contribute to the Environmental Land Management scheme, and in our new policy brief we provide policy recommendations to make tree-planting a core part of the future-farming transition.

For farms and farmers

It is widely recognised that trees within agricultural landscapes deliver many of the ecosystem services associated with trees and woodland, while at the same time increasing the sustainability and resilience of agriculture. Tree planting on agricultural land can take various forms with various advantages and disadvantages.

Our research shows, for example, that the addition of shelterbelts and hedgerows can protect crops or livestock from wind and extreme temperatures, but also pose competition for crops or pasture for light, water and nutrients. Alley cropping and silvopasture can provide sources of pollinator systems and biological pest control, but may see reduced profitability.

On preventing pests, there were mixed results. Farm woodland or tree clusters can boost pollination and reduce pressures from insect pests, although can also support a high density of woodpigeon nests (a major pest on seed crops).

Environmental impacts

Trees in agricultural landscapes have a multitude of benefits. They can contribute to carbon storage, flood mitigation, soil erosion management, water quality, air quality, thermal comfort, biodiversity, and health and wellbeing. As well as the environmental benefits, the policy brief breaks down the benefits for farms and the economy (as well as potential advantages and disadvantages).

Looking specifically at soil erosion management, for example:

Mechanisms of trees Benefits for farms Benefits for the environment Benefits for the economy Disadvantages and challenges
Trees capture rainfall with leaves, and therefore reducing runoff of nutrients & sediment on agricultural land. They also reduce the impact of wind and keeping soil structure with their roots (Wolton et al., 2014). Maintaining nutrients and organic matter within the farmlands, which is key for efficient yield. Erosion management by trees, secures soil biodiversity, and safeguarding adjacent areas from potential chemical runoff, and preserving carbon storage. By preventing soil erosion, trees support maximizing energies funnelled towards providing the best soil quality for improved yield. Roots may cause lateral damage in land

To see the breakdown of each environmental element, see the policy brief in full.

Addressing policy goals

The UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan aims to achieve climate resilience and net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and includes an ambition to plant 11 million trees by 2042.

Given that 71% of land in the UK is agricultural (Defra, 2019), and that 42% of farmers rely on agricultural subsidies to make a profit (Defra, 2018b), it is very likely that farmland will need to host a substantial portion of these 11 million trees (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2021).

As part of the post-Brexit overhaul of UK agricultural policy, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is developing Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, a mechanism to reward farmers with “public funds for public goods” (Defra 2018a). ELM will deliver environmental benefits through paying farmers for delivering ecosystem services related to climate change and resilience, water quality, air quality, plant vitality and biodiversity, environmental protection, and cultural and social benefits.

We identify how ELM lacks sufficient acknowledgement of the benefits of implementing trees as a sustainable option for farmers. Moreover, there is an evident lack of understanding of trees on farms in their different forms in the UK makes it difficult for farmers to choose them as an option for land management.

Policy recommendations

To drive a positive move toward trees on farms, we recommend the following:

  • Supporting farmers to make informed decisions about tree planting opportunities available to them through
  • Increasing empirical data from UK farms to support farmers and farm advisors in making locally appropriate, evidence-based decisions through
  • Make acknowledgement within Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and ELM of the different tree interventions applicable to farms, raising awareness as well as encouraging and supporting best practices.
Moving forward
We hope that this policy brief will raise awareness of the potential of trees on farms as a sustainable practice for building climate resilience and economic growth in the farming industry. It aims to encourage policy-makers, academics and the farming community to work together in supporting a better understanding of the different forms of trees of farms in the UK and their successful implementation.

Macarena Cárdenas is Research Manager at Earthwatch Europe

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.