From glamping to drone racing, with crops and truffles in between, trees can offer a plethora of business benefits, says John Tucker.
An interesting article popped into my inbox recently informing me that the first ever farmed Welsh truffle had just been harvested. Seven years ago, hazel trees inoculated with truffle fungal spores had been planted somewhere in South Wales and were now starting to realise their potential. The owner of this relatively new plantation had used her specially trained dog to find the truffle – the exact location of the plantation has of course been kept secret to avoid theft of this very valuable crop!
I have been involved in forestry for well over 30 years but this story served to remind me once again how versatile trees and woods can be and how they can be integrated successfully into all sorts of business opportunities. Still on the subject of fruit, climate change is rightly perceived as a potential threat in all sorts of areas of our lives, but it can also offer opportunities.
Tree species are now being planted that 20 years ago would have been unthinkable Near to where I live in Sussex, a two hectare field has been planted with a selection of olive trees with the ambition of producing British extra virgin olive oil; apricots are being grown outdoors on a commercial scale and websites like that of Martin Crawford (www.agroforestry.co.uk) are full of species that only serve to whet the appetite further.
There appears to be a real revival of so-called ‘agroforestry’ schemes where trees and crops are combined in the same field. Stephen Brigg’s farm near Peterborough, where strips of apple trees are integrated with arable crops, is the largest and certainly one of the best of this ‘new’ type of scheme, although agroforestry is centuries old and still practiced widely around the world. Some of our traditional native tree species also offer opportunities – a three hectare commercial holly plantation in Herefordshire brings in around £2,000 annually supplying the seasonal decorative market and foliage from yew trees is harvested for use in a cancer drug.
That’s fine for individual trees but what about woods? Woods are described as having a high ‘carrying capacity’; that is, they have an ability to absorb lots of people and activities that in a more open setting would have a detrimental impact on each other. Woods are great places for formal and informal recreation such as mountain biking and survival and foraging skills, and I have even been told of drone racing in forests in France!
Woodland is one of our richest habitats, especially old and long established woods. Think about wild flower tours in spring to view carpets of wood anemone and bluebells, fungal forays in the autumn or even night time tours using infra-red equipment to view deer and wild boar. Woods can be great places for people to experience nature and solitude and can be good for activities such as glamping, provided that all the necessary planning regulations are followed and that any development does not destroy the wildlife value of the site that makes it so special in the first place. Temporary, moveable structures should respect the richness of our woodlands, but even these should be avoided in our oldest ancient woodlands, which are best left undisturbed.
You can of course create your own woodland. Trees actually grow much more quickly than people think and it is easier to integrate business activities into your initial woodland design rather than trying to impose them on existing woodland.
Widely scattered trees rather than dense woodland might be a better option. I have seen a lovely Oxfordshire camping site where the pitch markers were cricket bat willow trees. These trees appreciated the riverside setting (they like a slightly damp site to grow) and can be felled (and replaced) in about 18 years. Each felled tree is currently worth around £250-300 and they are then converted into cricket bats for which the UK is rightly famed.
A recent revival in timber markets has been a timely reminder of the value of trees and woods, and many types of woodland have been worked in the past five years for the first time in a generation. Some of this increase in activity has been driven by an increased demand for wood fuel driven by the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive scheme; the number of biomass boilers in Britain rose from just 127 in July 2012 to 4,579 in July 2014. More effective and efficient ways of converting smaller quantities of less uniform material has also helped. A contact in Wiltshire is even using their own wood to build shepherd’s huts for their summer visitor business.
People love trees and you need to think about how you can turn this to your advantage when planning a business. Think about the hordes of people that turn up at Westonbirt Arboretum or Sheffield Park to view the autumn colours, or to climb the tree top trail at Kew. Trees and woods can provide an appropriate backdrop to a whole range of activities from weddings to funerals. Demand for green burials is increasing as space at traditional cemeteries becomes ever more limited. There are currently over 270 green burial sites in the UK, both in established and newly created woodland. The Arbory Trust site at Barton near Cambridge (www.arborytrust.org.uk) shows what is possible in newly created woodland.
For more traditional farming businesses based on crops and/or livestock, integration of trees and woods into their farming systems can offer a range of benefits. Trees and woods can offer shade in the summer for livestock and shelter in the winter; summer heat stress can be a real problem for outdoor pigs and dairy cows.
The issue with dairy cows was highlighted in SE Farmer magazine in July 2015 in the ‘Vet’s Diary’ section: “10th July; We have seen a number of dairy cows experiencing heat stress, having a large impact on their productivity and increasing their risk for other diseases.”
Winter cold and exposure can be a real hazard for field born lambs, especially in the first 48 hours, but the experience of the Pontbren farmers in mid Wales has demonstrated how carefully constructed shelter in the form of woods, copses and hedges can reduce the scale of the problem. Studies have shown that in cold, wet and windy weather lamb losses can be reduced by up to 30% if good shelter is provided.
A somewhat more novel use of trees for dairy cows is being trialled by one of the Woodland Trust’s farming ambassadors; Tim Downes farms in Shropshire, milking 250 cows and supplying the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative. Working with the Woodland Trust and Harper Adams University, Tim has set up browsing trials to assess which tree species might help his cattle nutritionally as an alternative source of protein as well as medicinally, with species such as willow being rich in salicylic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
Tree shelter can also, perhaps more surprisingly, benefit arable crops. Trees can reduce wind speeds across fields, thereby cutting down evapo-transpiration rates meaning that crops can use water more efficiently. Research in Canada has shown that shelterbelts can increase tree yields by 3.5% and that this figure can be even higher in drier years.
The shelter offered by trees and woods can also benefit pollinating insects, with species such as Goat Willow flowering in January and offering a source of pollen and nectar when there is little else available.
A farmer’s most precious resource is of course his soil and yet 2.9m tonnes are lost in the UK annually. This erosion can have a major negative impact on the water quality of our rivers and water courses. Carefully sited trees can militate against this erosion as well as soaking up pollutants, notably nitrates and phosphates. Tree roots improve filtration meaning water penetrates into the soil rather than simply running off. Research at Pontbren in Wales showed infiltration rates in recently created woodland were 60 times higher than those in pasture only 10m away.
Building a brand
Finally to branding; if you visit a Sainsbury’s supermarket you will see boxes of eggs featuring a picture of several chickens and some trees. This is the Sainsbury’s Woodland Egg range on which the Woodland Trust has partnered with the supermarket chain for more than 10 years.
Sainsbury’s currently sells around 450m woodland eggs annually, a market that has grown by 108% over the past 10 years. The brand is obviously successful but what lies behind it is also very interesting. Chickens are woodland birds and free range hens are far more likely to range if they are in a treed rather than an open environment.
Studies have shown that a more treed environment reduces the occurrence of ‘injurious feather pecking’ among the birds and research by the Lakes Free Range Egg Company has shown that chickens with tree cover produce eggs with better shell quality, which results in less ‘seconds’ during collection and packing. Thus we have a win, win situation – birds with higher welfare producing a higher value product.
Trees and woods may well offer more potential to support a new business venture than you first thought. As with any business development, good planning is essential. The Woodland Trust can advise on new tree and woodland planting and organisations such as the Institute of Chartered Foresters, the Royal Forestry Society and the Arboricultural Association may also be useful.
About the Author
John Tucker is a chartered forester with 30 years experience in multi-purpose woodland management. He has worked for the Woodland Trust for 20 years and is currently director of Woodland Creation, with a particular focus on working with private landowners across the UK. See www.woodlandtrust.org.uk