Farmers in England are being encouraged to convert farmland to woodland by the UK government through two connected schemes which launched in January 2017 - The Woodland Creation grant and The Woodland Carbon Fund.
The schemes aim to encourage new woodland cover to improve biodiversity, flood control and contribute to meeting future carbon reduction budgets. They will also contribute towards a long-term goal of 12% woodland cover in England by 2060. The government is actively promoting the scheme in advance of the January 2018 application round and have temporarily lowered the minimum area of planting required from 30ha to 10ha, which suggests uptake of the grants may be below expectations so far.
The schemes show that the UK government has at least some interest in ‘carbon farming’ to increase net sequestration of carbon through beneficial land-use changes. The Committee on Climate Change has recently called out the government's lack of progress in cutting carbon emissions from agriculture and land. They predict that carbon sequestration on land will decline in future, in part due to lack of new woodland planting. Will the schemes help reverse this decline? That depends largely on whether farmers decide to take up the grants.
Woodland creation could be a good diversification strategy for farmers to increase resilience in an increasingly uncertain future. Timber prices are on the rise, due to increased demand from biomass boilers and woodburners, along with the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive and the weak pound, following the Brexit vote. Another article (linked to in the one below) suggests that a shortage of home-grown timber could hit the UK in around 20 years, which would make planting new woodland now a good long-term investment. Since the average age of UK farmers is 59, the grants might not be enough to tempt many farmers into such a long-term investment, unless the land they convert is unproductive. If they need new woodland management skills, additional equipment and business administration time that might also put farmers off.
Perhaps we need new business models to help harness potential future market for woodland products. A patchwork farm model is used in London by Growing Communities to make it more feasible to farm small pieces of urban land. Could a similar model be applied to small patches of woodland on existing farms? Or could there be a new investment model to make long-term returns from planting woodland more accessible?