Don’t be sheepish about integrated forestry plans

Farmers stand to gain by integrating wool and wood. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Farmers stand to gain by integrating wool and wood. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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There has been a long-standing recognition that integrating forestry into hill and upland sheep farms can offer an extra income stream – along with a substantial degree of capital growth.

However, the old wool versus wood rivalry – which arose after many productive sheep farms were lost under blanket afforestation during the sixties and seventies – has meant that this revenue-boosting practice has not been widely adopted.

But yesterday saw the first of a series of meetings organised by the Scottish region of the National Sheep Association (NSA) designed to underscore the benefits which farmers could obtain from the integrated approach.

Changes to the common agricultural policy which meant that area support measures could still be claimed on parcels planted to integrated forestry were highlighted at the event as a possible “game changer” by NSA regional manager George Milne.

“While tree planting won’t suit every situation, it can offer considerable benefits to some producers,” said Milne. “And while we wouldn’t want to see a return to the blanket plantings of yesterday, a considered approach can pay dividends.”

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At the meeting, at Lymiecleugh Farm near Teviothead in the Borders yesterday, landowner Sir Michael Strang Steel and contract farmer Ian Hepburn outlined some of the benefits which they had achieved with an integrated approach.

Strang Steel said that it had been important that during the planning stage the less productive areas for sheep were chosen for planting the trees – and that best use was made of areas outside the forestry fencing to create gathering routes and large paddocks which helped improve management and could benefit grazing swards on the hills.

However, he stressed that the area planted had to be of considerable size – and warned that simply trying to create shelter belts seldom led to an economic return.

He added that if the plantings were carefully sited, there was often no need to reduce the numbers of sheep on the farm. Hepburn said that, like many farmers, he had seldom been willing to speak about trees in the past.

However, he said that he had changed his mind after working on the farm for the past six and a half years – adding that sheep productivity had risen because the plantings had been designed so that the forestry fencing made it possible to shut off areas of grazing between the woods when required.

He said that with many of the more productive hill farms seeing a considerable reduction in farm support payments, he envisaged that many of these farmers were currently investigating every means of improving their productive capacity.

But both Hepburn and Strang Steel stressed that proper vermin control – of foxes and other predators – was a crucial consideration.