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Can you eat trees? (FWN 33)

18 October 2019

When we bought Lynbreck in March 2016, we had no formal background in agriculture.  We used to work in woodland creation and I always remember a conversation I had with a local farmer who, commenting on our work said, ‘You can’t eat trees’, I assume referring to the removal of livestock for new planting.

When we were planning our new agricultural business, one where we always said the health of our soil, ourselves, our community and nature would come first, we saw trees as an integral part of our set up from day one.  We try to observe and copy natural processes to make our land as holistically productive as possible.  Our ground isn’t suitable for many crops and we don’t have the capacity to cut our own hay.  We were also very conscious of climate change.  At over 1,000 ft altitude our 150-acre croft is very exposed to winds, rain, snow and sun (when we get it).  We wanted to create as many options for shelter and food for our planned livestock team in the face of extreme weather patterns.  We wanted to build resilience into an uncertain future.

On the first day, we noticed a naturally regenerating army of Scots Pine marching up an area of the heathery hill.  We decided to enrich this area with 17,400 native broadleaf trees.  We undertook the majority of the work ourselves, meaning that we were able to use our Scottish Forestry grant funding to pay ourselves a wage.  We were also able to sell the carbon that the trees would sequestrate over a given period of time, giving a much needed financial boost to our new business.  It has meant removing that area from our grazing land for 20 years but it will create a new area of sheltered hill grazing.  An area where our animals can stay out longer and find more food through browsing tree leaves and a more varied ground flora that will appear as the new trees improve our soils.  In time, we’ll be able to increase our carrying capacity.  More animals, more food, more income, and better for biodiversity and our climate.

We followed this up with the planting of 1km of native hedging, part-funded by the’ Woodland Trust More Hedges’ scheme.  Our plan was to link up existing woodland habitats and create a ‘tree hug’ around our fields.  The goal is that our animals will always be able to access shelter, an important part of their welfare requirements, as well as helping them to maintain body condition and provide safe calving havens, reducing mortality due to poor weather conditions.  We also assessed our existing woodlands and enriched these with the planting of new species.  We use our pigs to snuffle and root, breaking up the dense matt of monoculture grasses and providing niches for new tree seedlings and other grasses and wildflowers to set seed and grow.  We need these woodlands to be around for the long term so we need to ensure we help to keep them healthy and encourage succession.

But the early conversation with the farmer rang in my ears.  Can you eat trees?  It didn’t take us long to find out the answer – yes.  Until relatively recently using tree fodder and tree hay (made by cutting small branches and drying them for winter feed) was commonplace in the UK, and still is in other areas of Europe.  This led us to our most recent project – the planting of over 5,000 trees in an agroforestry scheme.  We chose mostly willow and a bit of alder, mainly because they grow quickly are suited to damp conditions, and respond well to regular cutting.  Willow has pain relief properties and both willow and alder, when browsed, can help to reduce parasite burdens.  We hope that our new tree crops will help to reduce the amount of hay we need to buy in annually, will improve our soils and will keep our animals healthier, reducing the need for veterinary interventions and mineral supplements.

Our challenge now is to get all the trees we have planted to grow – lots of weeding, bracken bashing and keeping away hungry herbivores.  We’re considering incorporating more trees into our field systems, something which takes more thought and planning for our location.  This could include individual trees or rows of fruiting and nut-baring shrubs.  The potential excites us and it will all add to growing resilience into our croft business.  One thing we are sure of – more trees will not just mean healthier, stronger animals, it will mean even more of them!  So yes, you can eat trees.  Our pure Highland Beef, rare breed Oxford Sandy and Black pork, free-range hen eggs and honey from our foraging bees are all full of them.

Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer of the multi-awarding winning Lynbreck Croft, as seen on BBC series This Farming Life.

This article was published in the Autumn 2019 Farm Woodland News which you can download here.  To subscribe to Farm Woodland News please enter your details here.

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