Reasons to increase tree and hedgerow cover in UK Agriculture

by Dr William Stiles, Farming Connect Knowledge Exchange H ub, IBERS, Aberystwyth University

WOODLAND patches, lone trees, and hedgerows are essential components of the agri‐ecosystem, yet this resource has declined in the UK in the twentieth century due to agricultural intensification, which has driven the creation of larger more simplified field systems.

The re‐establishment of hedgerows and woodland patches on farms remains an area for development yet has great potential to deliver multiple benefits in economic, ecological and environmental terms.

As an example, the benefits derived from the availability of shelter and shade can be huge for livestock. Extremes of heat and cold are a feature of the seasonal UK climate which can affect production. Shelter can increase lamb survival rates, by reducing the effect of wind chill and thus hypothermia, particularly in the early stages after birth, and can reduce feed requirements in the winter months as cold livestock will require greater feed inputs in order to keep warm.

“The provision of hedges and woodlands on farms can also increase the delivery of ecosystem services.
This can happen directly, as hedges and woodland patches can increase carbon capture and sequestration and reduce the potential for flooding.”

In the summer months, heat stress can reduce milk yield in dairy herds and can adversely affect numerous biological functions relating to production in both sheep and cows, including fertility.

Animal health may also be improved through reductions in standing water, from increased infiltration rates associated with greater tree and hedgerow cover, as reductions in damp conditions in fields can reduce the incidence of lameness and liver fluke.

The provision of hedges and woodlands on farms can also increase the delivery of ecosystem services. This can happen directly, as hedges and woodland patches can increase carbon capture and sequestration and reduce the potential for flooding, and indirectly, as they can increase the habitat resource availability for essential wildlife, including species that undertake pollination or act as natural controllers of pest species.

Hedgerow and tree resources increase habitat and forage availability for these important wildlife groups. Improvements in the availability of habitat or food resources means larger populations of species throughout the food chain, as energy is transferred from the bottom up to higher trophic levels; or in simpler terms: more forage and habitat means more bugs, which means more birds (or other animals).

By planting trees and hedges farmers have an opportunity to future‐proof landscapes against shifts in weather and climate, such as increased precipitation, expected with future environmental change, and by doing so can simultaneously reduce current environmental impacts of agricultural activities.

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