Friday 27 May 2016

Potential of agroforestry can no longer be ignored

Grace Maher

Published 06/01/2016 | 02:30

Liam Beechinor has planted a mix of oak and ash trees at 5x5m spacing intervals on his agroforestry plot at Dunmanway, Co Cork.
Liam Beechinor has planted a mix of oak and ash trees at 5x5m spacing intervals on his agroforestry plot at Dunmanway, Co Cork.

Schemes to encourage afforestation have led to the establishment of 26,000 private forest plantations in Ireland since 1980. The majority of these plantations are owned by farmers, making farmers the new foresters.

The decision to plant agricultural land with trees can be a difficult one for many farmers and most will only ever be tempted to plant marginal land. Agroforestry is changing that practice in many countries and it is beginning to gain overdue attention here.

Agroforestry essentially consists of combining forestry and productive grassland on the same tract of land. Described by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation as having the potential to "curb greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation, as well as improve ecosystem services such as water retention", it is potentially a very attractive option for many Irish farmers.

Ireland has the highest proportion of land under grass in the EU at 48pc, and the second lowest amount of woodland cover at 11pc.

In order to mitigate climate change Ireland needs to plant more trees. Agroforestry allows farmers to maintain grass or arable crops but to also plant trees.

Specific measures were introduced in the 2014-2020 Forestry Programme to target farmers directly and encourage them to plant more trees.

The agroforestry measure allows a total grant of €4,450/ha for the duration of five years. This is significantly shorter than other measures that average 15 years, and thus far has gained a lukewarm reaction from farmers.

Benefits of Agroforestry

Eugene Curran, a forestry inspector with the department, says agroforestry offers a variety of benefits for Irish farmers.

"In west Cork, there are some good agroforestry silvopastoral systems, providing the land owner with access to the grass despite having trees in the same field.

Trees are planted in rows allowing plots to be grazed, and farmers can cut silage and hay in between the rows of trees.

"This flexibility will suit many farmers. Any management system that can provide land owners with a renewable energy source, offset carbon emissions from other farming practices, reduce nutrient input and runoff, stabilise drainage, enhance animal welfare, increase biodiversity, improve animal nutrition, enhance the landscape and in some cases increase productivity by 50pc is well worth a second look" he said.

Agroforestry and organics

Professor Jim McAdam of Queens University Belfast has led the way on agroforestry research in Ireland since he began his trial plots 26 years ago in Loughgall, Co Antrim. The results of these trials prove the environmental benefits of agroforestry as well as documenting the economic benefits.

Agroforestry looks like a natural fit for organic farmers, but the uptake on agroforestry remains low.

For those participating in the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS), the DAFM Organic Unit has confirmed that payment under both schemes on the same land parcels is not permitted.

In addition, farmers who may be negotiating numerous schemes like the OFS and GLAS are not keen to take on another scheme due to paperwork and simple logistics.

However, as the agroforestry measure is a new scheme, once farmers become familiar with the concept, it could become a favoured choice with many farmers, organic and conventional.

Demonstration plots

Liam Beechinor has a demonstration agroforestry plot near Dunmanway, Co Cork. It was planted in April 2012 and is a mixture of oak and ash trees. The trees are planted at 5x5 metre spacing.

To date Liam is very happy with the plot's progress. In the first year of growth he took two cuts of silage off the ground and then grazed it with sheep later.

As a farmer Liam likes the idea of being involved in forestry and by planting an agroforestry plot on his farm it made the "decision to plant good land with trees much easier as you know you can still work the land.

"I definitely spend a lot more time in this area now that the trees are here, you find yourself coming to check on the progress and growth of the trees which is interesting. I think that this is a great way to incentivise farmers to plant trees," said Liam.

Richard Auler, a longterm organic farmer with IOFGA, based in Cahir, Co Tipperary is just starting to experiment with agroforestry. Richard always planted trees on the farm and in 2011 he put in a new plantation, 85pc of which is oak and the remainder mixed species.

His agroforestry plot was put in place last year. It is 4.2ha and is mainly apples, various walnuts, sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts and willow. The area is fenced for rabbits and the trees are planted in 10m wide rows to allow for grazing sheep and silage cutting.

"This part of the farm was always difficult to work with as there are low electric lines so I hope that the agroforestry plot will suit this area and remain extremely productive which is one of the great benefits of developing agroforestry on the farm," said Richard.

Grace Maher is development officer with the IOFGA, www.iofga.org

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