Farmers are delaying tree planting due to uncertainty over government plans for conservation-based subsidies, delaying UK efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and stem the drastic decline of farmland wildlife.
New farm payments are due from 2024, under the government’s promised post-Brexit subsidy scheme, but farmers fear that if they plant trees now they won’t get credit for them when the new ones programs will start. Meanwhile, they risk losing their existing grants if they switch to tree planting now.
Ministers have repeatedly stressed that future payments to farmers will be made on the principle of “public money for public goods”, meaning that farmers will be paid to take care of the land and wildlife, in under “Environmental Land Management Contracts” or ELMs. But the farmers told the Observer too few details are available on the expected new system, four years after it was promised by the government.
This leaves farmers in limbo. If they use land currently in food production to plant trees, they could lose their existing subsidies, called base payments. Many farmers are also bound by stewardship agreements with the government, under which they receive special grants for good environmental management. But these are so inflexible that farmers cannot plant trees because it would violate their agreement.
“We are grateful for the stewardship payments, but changing them is difficult,” said Martin Hole, a cattle rancher in Sussex. “Farmers are in trouble. It happens to me, and I hear it from many others. We want to plant trees, but there may be financial penalties if we do.
Hole wanted to triple the forested area of his farm, but couldn’t make the finances work because it would mean redesigning his current stewardship arrangement and he’s unsure of any future support.
Richard Bramley, a farmer in south York who chairs the National Farmers’ Union environmental forum, faces a similar dilemma. He said the government has not yet specified how farmers will be encouraged to plant trees and hedgerows in the future. “There’s so little information. Planting trees takes capital and time, and it’s a lifelong change, so you want to get it right.
Trees are an integral part of environmentally beneficial agriculture because they provide habitats for wildlife, help prevent flooding, store carbon and purify the air. They also benefit farmers, providing shade and shelter for livestock and encouraging pollinators.
However, planting trees requires significant investment. Rhys Evans, a cattle and sheep farmer in southern Snowdonia, is planting 1km of hedges, with fence posts costing £3 each and £30 for corners, even before the cost of the 7,000 saplings needed and labor. “It’s very expensive. There will be long-term benefits, and we want to do that, but many less proactive farmers will be discouraged,” he said.
Martin Lines, president of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said farmers were increasingly aware of the benefits of trees and hedges, but needed more encouragement to start planting. “We are getting mixed signals,” he said. “The government needs to reassure us more.”
Organic farmers are also discouraged from investing in agroforestry, combining forestry with food production by growing trees that produce organic nuts and fruits among crops or livestock pastures. Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford, the vegetable box company, said: ‘Some of these trees are not native, they are European or American, so they might not be included in the requirement to plant species native. The government has shown little interest in agroforestry in general.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs highlighted its scheme allowing farmers to plant just one hectare of trees. “By accepting grants now such as the Woodlands in England offer, farmers and landowners will be able to transition into future environmental land management programs at agreed times without having to repay their current funding,” said said a spokesperson.
However, farmers said the forest creation program was not suitable for all farms, as it targeted those who could afford to take a significant acreage out of production. Many also worry about what would happen if the trees fail or are damaged by storms, deer or rabbits, as they could be held liable for new investments to replant the forest. Up to one in four trees may require replanting, even under the right circumstances.
Farm subsidies are a devolved policy across the UK, but Scotland and Wales face similar issues. Hywel Morgan, with a hill farm in the west Brecon Beacons, told the Observer many nearby farms were being bought up by corporations to grow forests for carbon credits, to offset their carbon emissions. “What about those of us who want to continue as family farms? I don’t see how to plant these trees but then importing food makes sense [for the environment]. I would like to plant trees, but also cultivate.
Ministers must act faster, urged Ben Raskin, head of horticulture and agroforestry at the Soil Association. “It’s a complex and long-term issue, but they shouldn’t make us wait until we have something they think is perfect. We’d like to see some interim help at least, on agroforestry and hedgerows. Farmers want to do more now.