Branching out

On a large or small scale, trees are a big part of the solution to climate change. A farm in Suffolk is placing agroforestry at the heart of its land management

With the future emphasis on grant-supported farms to provide public goods, and in particular the importance of more trees in our landscape, agroforestry – the practice of combining trees and either crops or livestock – has the potential to provide opportunities to deliver a wide range of benefits for the public and landowner. In December 2020, John Pawsey planted three fields with 3,500 trees totalling around 50 acres at Shimpling Farm near Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk as part of an agroforestry project.

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The Pawsey family has farmed in Suffolk for four generations, and John started farming with his grandfather in 1985. He began converting the farm to organic production in 1999 partly for financial reasons but mainly due to concerns about overworked soils and diminishing biodiversity. He now farms entirely organically on their home farm and for some neighbouring like-minded farmers.

John says his interest in agroforestry was sparked by a fellow Suffolk landowner. “The Organic Research Centre had a farm in Suffolk owned by the late Professor Martin Wolfe who planted his agroforestry system more than 20 years ago,” he says. “I was going to their open days to learn how to farm better organically, and that is when I was exposed to his agroforestry system.”

I was never interested in agroforestry, but every time I went there, I saw the difference it was making to his farm as far as biodiversity was concerned. That, together with the aspect of having a long-term crop running alongside an annual crop, was enormously attractive

John Pawsey

Planning the project

In planning for his agroforestry project, John carefully considered how and where the trees should be planted. This included what the width of the tree alleys should be for their controlled farming system to work. He opted for crop alleys that are 36 metres wide and tree alleys 4.5 metres wide, sown with a wildflower mix. John employed a consultant to help plan the project. The consultant carried out in-depth research into the species of trees that would likely be doing well in 20 years based on historical data. The aim was to bring resilience into the project from a climate change perspective. The trees planted are species already found on the farm in the nearby Alpheton Wood, a registered site of special scientific interest.

The wood is noted for its beautiful collection of oxlips, orchids and other wildflowers. It includes oak, hazel, cherry, goat willow, aspen, holly and wild service, among others. The idea is for the agroforestry project to mimic the woodland that already exists at the farm and to enhance existing biodiversity.

Alpheton Wood is also undergoing long-term restoration, which started in 2010 with the ancient practice of rotational coppicing. It is fenced to protect the new coppice from deer damage, with the resulting timber providing a sustainable source of fuel used to heat farm buildings, offices, homes and Shimpling Park Barn.

“The Woodland Trust paid for the trees, the guards and the stakes for the agroforestry,” John explains. “We have a 12-year agreement with them that means we have to maintain the trees, which is where the real work is. I was very keen to work with someone on this project as it’s a learning curve. If you work in partnership with organisations like the Woodland Trust, then you can tap into their expertise.”

Carbon-negative farming

At Shimpling Farm, in further efforts to move towards carbon-negative farming, John reintroduced livestock in 2014 with a flock of New Zealand Romney sheep to recycle nutrients. John challenges his team to use modern technology to control weeds, pests and diseases without the use of pesticides, build fertility naturally using legumes and green manures. The aim is to have a positive effect on biodiversity, operate as a carbon-negative farm and leave the soil in good condition for future generations.

An added benefit of the agroforestry scheme is that the trees planted will provide much-needed shade for the livestock who graze the largely arable fields at the farm.

Harvesting the trees is very much a long game. “First of all, we’ll thin the trees that aren’t looking good for timber,” says John. “Hazel will be coppiced in around 10 to 15 years’ time, the cherry will be about every 30 or 40 years, and oak will obviously be a lot longer. It will be an evolving scene as to what is happening down the alleys of trees.”

With Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes central to future agriculture policy, John believes farming will look very different in the future.

ELM is going to bring lots of colour to our businesses, and I think farms that really engage in it are going to look very different to farms that don’t. They’ll also sound very different and hopefully have lots of different species

John Pawsey

John recommends that any landowner considering agroforestry should first visit an established project to see first-hand what is required. “You have to really want to do it,” he says. “You have to be fully involved in the design and how it is going to be managed, and you also have to be extremely enthusiastic about it. I’d also recommend you do it when you’re in your 20s or 30s if you can, because that way you’re most likely to see the result.”

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