Guide to planting trees on your ruminant farm

Why is tree planting important?

In recent years, the impacts of climate change have become more damaging. We’ve seen an increase in severe weather, changing rainfall patterns, and rising sea levels.

Climate change will affect RSPCA Assured farms and the animals on them. It will alter the way we farm, what can be grown and our ability to ensure higher welfare for farm animals. 

The UK is facing a climate crisis:

  • Severe weather - droughts, heatwaves, flooding
  • Rising sea levels - flooding
  • Increasing temperatures - heat stress, sunburn and dehydration in animals, as well as an increased risk of harmful algal blooms in water supplies
  • Changing rainfall patterns - unpredictable weather
  • Drier soil conditions - reduced availability of feed, pasture and trees 

Science suggests increasing greenhouses gases as the main culprit. According to AHDB, transport (28%), energy production (23%), business (18%), and residential (15%) sectors dominate the UK’s greenhouse gases. With the whole of agriculture as the fourth-smallest emitter.

The good news is they’ve all significantly reduced their emissions since 1990. But more needs to be done by everyone. In response, the UK Government has set a legal target of 'net zero' carbon emissions by 2050.

How can your farm help?

According to DEFRA, agriculture contributes about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, of which more than half is attributed to farmed livestock. So you may need to change the way you farm to reach the ‘net zero’ target. 

Try the NFU Status Indicator to get quick and easy practical measures you can put in place to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions on-farm. 

A study led by Thomas Crowther (2019) found that trees are the biggest and cheapest way to remove carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Planting trees, on any scale, can play a crucial role to combat climate change. 

Yet, alarmingly, the UK has one of the lowest levels of tree cover in Europe. But with more than one-third of woodland in the UK on a farm, you can keep helping by planting even more trees.

What does it mean to be 'net zero'?

An industry, such as farming, must remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as it puts into it. Therefore, it should have an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions removed.

What are the benefits of planting trees on your farm?

Tree planting works alongside productive farming. You can utilise them in everyday practices. They offer much more than somewhere to store carbon. Trees provide multiple benefits to you, the environment, and the welfare of farm animals. 

Here are some positives trees bring to your farm - but is in no way definitive - there are lots they can offer. 

Shade and shelter

Planting trees provide shade and shelter on your farm. They can reduce heat stress and exposure for animals and increase grass growth.

The shade and shelter trees offer, give livestock protection from the sun. They can help animals avoid getting sunburn. Also, air temperatures beneath a tree canopy will lower as a result of evaporation through leaf surfaces. 

Heat stress has a severe impact on the lives of farm animals. It can affect, among other things, milk production in dairy animals, conception and reproduction rates in cattle and sheep, and overall well-being. 

Shade and shelter are vital for all livestock. For example, a study by Pritchard et al (2021) found that ewes given access to additional shelter had fewer shepherding problems (e.g. assisted lambings, dead lambs, poor lamb vigour).

Trees are a reliable source of shelter all year round. During the summer months, they provide shade from the sun and during the winter months, animals can shelter from the elements, protecting them from harmful exposure, such as wind chill.

Shelter provided by trees can promote grass growth. Reports show it increases average annual pasture by 20%. This is due to a reduction of wind speed and evapotranspiration of water from grass. In dry springs and summers, this can be crucial in continuing grass growth. It also increases soil temperature in the early spring and late autumn, extending the growing season for grass.

Benefits:

  • Reduce heat stress
  • Reduce exposure - especially for young animals
  • Grass growth - extended growing season

Water management

Planting trees will help water management on your farm. They can reduce flood risk, remove water pollutants and increase water efficiency. 

Trees are a cost-effective way to mitigate flooding on your farm. Thoughtful planting on farmland will improve soil infiltration and water retention. This will reduce the impact of flooding by increasing the capacity of the land to retain water; improving drainage of fields and lowering the likelihood of waterlogged pasture. 

Planting trees will also help reduce water run-off and improve soil moisture, an important environmental and welfare issue in agriculture. This can have a positive impact on the welfare of your animals. For example, reduced soil moisture can lower the risk of liver fluke, an internal parasite. In addition, having damp ground on your farm can increase the risk of lameness, a major issue for both sheep and cattle. 

You can reduce water pollutants on your farm by planting trees. Water going into the soil in tree belts is less likely to carry potential contaminants, such as sediment. 

Water efficiency can also be improved by having more trees on your farmland. Tree shelter belts will reduce wind speeds and daytime temperatures. This will increase the level of humidity around the plant surface, slowing water loss from plants leaves. Non-sheltered crops will use the same amount of water as sheltered ones, but they won’t have as high photosynthesis rates and water use efficiency. 

Benefits:

  • Lower flood risk
  • Reduce water pollutants
  • Increase water efficiency

Where to plant trees to provide shade and shelter?

If you want to create shelter for livestock from trees, consider restoring and maintaining the trees and hedgerows already on your farm. 

Planting additional trees and hedgerows can help create a shelter belt. But plant on the northern, shadier side to avoid shading anything out.

Where to plant trees to improve water management?

To reduce wind speeds across the farm and modify the microclimate, plant trees along your field edge or as an in-field shelter belt.

Boost biodiversity

Trees provide important nesting sites and food sources for pollinators. They create ‘nature pathways' for bees, birds and other insects to move between habitats. 

Remember to protect your animals from biting insects in trees. If possible, make sure you treat both the animals and trees. Your livestock should never be excessively annoyed by insects and happy to use the natural shelter. 

Having more trees on your farm will increase the area of habitat available to local wildlife. Not just that, lots of species of birds and insects will get the shelter provided by trees. Trees will offer food for wildlife, such as; fruits, pollen and nectar from flowering trees.

Benefits: 

  • Provide habitats for wildlife
  • Encourage biodiversity

Reduce soil erosion

Soil erosion can bring high economic costs to your farm. Planting trees on your farmland will act as a barrier to protect soils from erosion by wind and water. Choosing to plant trees with long roots will hold soils firm and maintain the land.  

Benefits:

  • Improve soil quality
  • Reduce land degradation
  • Lower economic costs

Where to plant trees on your farm to boost biodiversity?

Plant regularly spaced trees as part of alley-cropping systems to create ‘nature pathways’.

Where to plant trees on your farm to reduce soil erosion?

To build natural barriers to protect soils from the impact of climatic conditions, plant trees along the contours of your farm, perpendicular to prevailing winds or in areas known to be vulnerable to soil erosion.

Diversify Income

While trees provide many benefits for animals, your farm and the environment. They will also offer something for your pockets. Trees can provide profits, such as timber and woodfuel production, to use on-farm or sell. 

Benefits:

  • Diversify income
  • Support local economy (provision of new jobs)

Health Benefits for Livestock

Trees can add to the health and wellbeing of farm animal lives. They can supplement the diet of your livestock from browse (free tree leaves and small branches) and fodder (preserved browse). These can be good sources of nutrition for livestock and are favourable over grasses grown in the same environment (Whistance, 2018).

The Sussex Wildlife Trust has written an interesting article on how edible trees can help with farm animal health.

Trees make excellent scratching posts too. Whistance (2018) found that sheep who rub up against trees can maintain their coat condition. It will remove moulting hair, fleece, and seeds that can penetrate the skin, and external parasites, such as ticks, can be dislodged, reducing risks of associated diseases.

Case Study: Andrea Stanley (beef & sheep)

Where are you based?

The Black Mountains near Ammanford in South Wales. 

Who works on the farm?

Me, my husband and sometimes my six-year-old son!

How long have you been an RSPCA Assured producer?

It’s our second year on the scheme. We’re certified for beef and sheep. 

As you may well know, I've been an Assessor, and Senior Assessor at RSPCA Assured for over a decade. So you could say I know a few things about higher welfare farming. 

What animals do you have on-farm?

We've got 14 Dexter cows, and one Guernsey cross Hereford, which we intend to use as a house cow. We also have around 60 ewes and 40 lambs. 

What size is your farm? 

We own 25 acres of land and rent a further 60 acres for grazing and making hay and silage. We also have access to the mountain, which is common grazing for the cows to use.

Are you concerned about environmental issues?

As a family, we've always cared for the environment and wildlife around us. We believe that farmers are here to work alongside their surroundings. It means caring for the soil, water and air that we share. 

What sustainable practices do you do on-farm? 

We're mindful of our farming methods. Especially how they’ll impact the world. These range from using organic manures to installing bat and bird boxes for wildlife.

The area we're situated in isn't suitable for crop or vegetable production. So cows and sheep are key to our enterprise. Not only do they utilise the available space, but the livestock is integral for keeping grass, brash and weeds under control. The cows are mainly pasture-fed as we try to keep our carbon footprint low. We avoid all imported soya and other cereal crops.

We're creating natural features on-farm. Especially where the land suggests they should be. For example, we've made ponds in natural areas that collect water. Our first pond already has plants growing and a returning frog and toad population. They've been an excellent base for wildlife that need a drink or a bath!

Which tree species have you planted so far?

We started planting trees two years ago, and every season we try to plant a few more. Within the hedgerows, we plant blackthorn, hawthorn, oaks, crab apples and wild cherries. We've also planted new birch trees and other fruit trees such as; apples, pears and plums. 

In particularly wet areas on the farm, we’ve planted some willow as it grows at a different rate and attracts varied wildlife. During the winter, we hope to plant some conifers that have been growing in pots. Conifers are evergreen, so they’ll provide shade and shelter to the livestock in the winter. 

On-farm, we like to have a variety of tree species. Putting the right tree in the right place is important. They offer their own unique benefits. 

How many trees have you planted so far? 

Probably around 750 trees and hedgerow plants. This season, we're planning to plants another 500 or so. 

When is the best time to plant trees on-farm? 

Over the winter months! There's plenty of water for their establishment, and the trees are predominantly dormant. Well, at the least not trying to produce new growth, leaves and buds.

What benefits do trees bring to your farm? 

Not only do trees look fabulous, but they also provide a lot of benefits to the farm. They help take up water to prevent flooding downstream and waterlogged pasture. Trees also provide shade and shelter for our livestock - which is essential for their wellbeing. 

As a beautiful bonus, trees act as wildlife corridors (nature pathways), habitats for nesting birds, and when in flower, excellent for pollinating insects. They're brilliant!  

Did you use any financial or logistical support that's available? 

We’re able to use a grant from the Welsh Government - the Glastir Small Grants Carbon scheme. It’s a small capital grant which pays for planting the hedges and fencing them off to protect them until they are established. But I know there's lots of support available across the UK. The Woodland Trust are an excellent source of advice and a great starting point before your tree-planting project. 

What advice would you give to other farmers wanting to plant trees?

More trees and hedgerows is a win, win. Not only do they help your stock but also the wildlife and environment. Trees capture carbon, manage surface water and look fabulous. 

Planting is hard work - especially on the side of a mountain. So planning to plant a section or sections a year is a great way to manage your project. Try to spread the cost and the workload.

Which trees should you plant on your farm?

The decisions we make today about trees will impact future generations for centuries. So it's pivotal to get them right, as each tree species offers unique benefits. 

In response to the England Tree Strategy consultation in May 2021, the NFU stated the correct tree species must be chosen and responsibly sourced to match the location while maximising long-term objectives. Simply, the right tree needs to go in the right place. 

The Woodland Trust believe a good starting point for choosing which tree to plant is looking at what is growing well nearby. Native species are a great place to begin your planting project. They’re well accustomed to the environment and are more likely to succeed. 

Choose the right tree:

Things to consider: 

  • What are the characteristics of your site? 
  • What is the local climate? 
  • What are your objectives? 
  • How would they impact your livestock? Seek specialist advice, perhaps from your vet or nutritionist before planting.

Trees to avoid planting near ruminant livestock: 

  • Yew trees - must be avoided, as even if ingested in small quantities they can cause sudden death in livestock. 
  • Oak trees - care should be taken in Autumn where overconsumption of acorns can cause fatal kidney damage. This is uncommon, and shouldn't stop you from planting oaks as these species are very important for wildlife. But consider precautionary to prevent your animals from feeding on acorns. 
  • Most poisonous trees don't present a major concern, as livestock will usually be discouraged by their bitter taste.

What should you check before planting trees on your farm?

As you can see, there are lots of benefits trees can bring. So you’re eager to get planting on your farm, but there are a few things you should check first. 

Things to consider:

  • Are there any restrictions to the land? Make sure you aren’t planting on pipes, underground equipment or even a hidden Roman mosaic
  • Is it an area of high ecological value? Avoid planting trees on any wildflowers, diverse grasses or rare plant species 
  • Are you planting on a floodplain? Check if there’s a watercourse nearby. If so, contact the Environment Agency before planting 
  • Will it spoil a neighbours view, access or level of light? It’s important to consider any potential implications your project will have on others 

What support is available to help plant trees on your farm? 

There is lots of support available to help you plant trees on-farm. The Woodland Trust and Forestry Commission are leading organisations in this ‘field’. They offer free advice and support for tree planting on your farm. This includes choosing species, identifying where to plant and assisting with grant support where available.

The Woodland Trust - the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity - is a great place to start your journey to planting more trees on-farm. They’ll provide expert advice and signposting to support you further. For more information, visit woodlandtrust.org.uk/plant or email plant@woodlandtrust.org.uk

The Forestry Commission can also assist you. They have a range of grants available to help with planning, creating and maintaining woodland.

Incentives and schemes around the UK: 

About the author

Jeremy Costello

Jeremy is RSPCA Assured's Junior Public Relations Executive

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