Introduction to agroforestry in the Heart of England Forest
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By Beth Brook, Chief Executive, Heart of England Forest
As the largest new native broadleaf forest in the country, the Heart of England Forest has a significant amount of land to manage to improve its value for biodiversity. CEO Beth Brook explains why the charity has integrated agroforestry into its land management practices.
What is agroforestry?
At the Heart of England Forest, we believe that forestry and farming can flourish together.
Agroforestry is the practice of mixing forestry and agricultural practices which benefits people, wildlife and the environment. This can mean growing both trees and crops on the same piece of land or allowing animals to wander and feed and shelter in areas of woodland, and assisting with woodland management in return.
This differs from traditional forestry and agriculture by focussing on the interactions between farming and forestry rather than viewing them as completely separate.
Why is agroforestry important at the Heart of England Forest?
With over 7,000 acres already, the charity’s ambition is to grow a 30,000 acre native broadleaf forest stretching up the Warwickshire / Worcestershire border, forming the green lungs of the Midlands and the heart of the nation. More than just wall-to-wall trees, the Forest is a dynamic mosaic of habitats which would once have been found within the ancient Forest of Arden and the Forest of Feckenham. So as well as over 4000 acres of newly planted woodland, the Forest includes swathes of mature and ancient woodland, wetland, grassland and even some remnant heathland.
Whilst our growing forestry team enables us to train the next generation of foresters via our forestry apprenticeship and forestry internship programmes, adding in several hundred sheep and a couple of hundred cattle enables us to undertake some of this management more cost effectively, reaching parts of the Forest other foresters cannot reach!
Farming is a valuable addition to the Forest and benefits us in a number of ways:
- Primarily, it allows us to practice conservation grazing with our animals to help us manage the Forest habitats.
- It also enables us to acquire and manage low production farmland whilst we await any tree planting permissions, and create income that can be fed back in to further grow the Forest.
- As an organisation that champions sustainability, we are committed to organic practices that encourage natural crop pest predators, develop healthier soils and habitats, and encourage wildlife-supporting plant species.
Silvopastoral agroforestry and conservation grazing
Grazing animals have been used to shape our landscape for hundreds of years and is often the most effective and sustainable way of maintaining habitats to ensure they remain rich in wildlife. We use a mixture of our Jacob and Hebridean sheep and longhorn cattle in the Forest, with our more modern lleyn herd performing grazing on the wide grassy rides and other pasture fields which keep the Forest open and airy. Visitors will begin to see more livestock on some of our walks as the more recently planted trees mature and conservation grazing becomes more widespread across the Forest.
Main benefits of conservation grazing
- Selective eating - bred for their hardiness, our conservation grazers often prefer to eat the dominant plant species. This leaves space for a variety of other species to become established, leading to a wider diversity of plants.
- Rooting and trampling - some ground disturbance is beneficial, providing new habitats for warmth-loving reptiles and invertebrates, and creating safe spots for new seedlings to flourish.
- Lying and pushing - the weight of the animals has a positive effect on the ground plants and rolling spots can help to increase this mosaic. The horns on the longhorn cattle and Jacob and Hebridean sheep will also help to control tough understorey plants such as brambles and bracken.
- Poo! Did you know that more than 250 species of insect can be found on British cowpats, which provide a vital source of food for birds, foxes, badgers, and even bats?
2021 will see the establishment of our “flying flock” – a small group of sheep which can be used in varying numbers at sites across the Forest to undertake particular grazing tasks. These will range from low density gentle grazing to maintain a short grass sward, useful to attract particular birds and insects; to mob grazing, where a group of livestock grazes a small area for a relatively short period, which not only benefits the animals, but also the health of the land. Benefits include preventing compaction which protects the soil structure, plant resilience and extension of the season, drought tolerance as the plants can develop longer and more robust root structures, and an overall improvement in biodiversity with grasses and wild flowers having more chance to flower and set seed, providing food and shelter for a range of animals and birds.
Hebrideans are perfect for our conservation grazing – they are very hardy sheep, used to being outside in all weather conditions, and have a very tough palate, which means they will eat many of the dominant plant species which outcompete the more fragile grasses and flowers, giving the latter chance to flourish and grow. As well as the Hebrideans, we are building up our flock of Jacob sheep, another traditional hardy breed with horns which assist with disturbing the understory in wood pasture and woodland, keeping more dominant plants such as bramble in check. We are also looking forward to trialling new breeds of sheep, which might include Shropshire sheep, known for their ability not to nibble young trees!
Cropping agroforestry takes a slightly different form and far more planning is required. We are also undertaking an agri-silvicultural pilot incorporating cropping agroforestry at our Sheriffs Lench site, involving straight rows of trees with interspersed crops grown between. Working in collaboration with local charity, Vale Landscape Heritage Trust, we have chosen fruit trees as a complementary crop and have planted the first two rows with 25 different traditional Worcestershire heritage varieties.
Now the trees have begun to establish we have sown a red clover mix beneath our rows of fruit trees The red clover mix will provide an important source of nectar for our pollinators, as well as inputting nitrogen into the ground, ready for us to add organic crops in future years.
Although agroforestry systems have been around for hundreds of years, it is only in relative recent history that they have started to see a revival in the UK. Always keen to learn from others, we have found it a challenge to find other like-minded organisations to share knowledge and experience, particularly within the organic sector.
On a recent agroforestry farm visit, our Head Forester came across an interesting saying which encapsulates the ethos of agroforestry and what we do: ‘Farmers are always looking down at the ground, foresters are always looking up in the canopy, but agroforesters are the only ones that see the whole picture!’.
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