Is Woodland Creation Right for Me? The new England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO)
Woodland creation and tree planting is a big topic in agriculture and land management at the moment. The new England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) opened for applications on 9 June 2021, replacing the Woodland Carbon Fund (WCF) which closed in March. The EWCO is open to landowners, land managers and public bodies, and will support the creation of new woodland on areas as small as one hectare, opening up opportunities for those who could not meet the WCF minimum of ten hectares.
Woodland creation, at any scale, is a big commitment, and it’s always a good idea to do your research, take expert advice, and make a plan with clear and achievable objectives before taking on such a long-term project. This post aims to help you think about whether woodland creation is right for you:
- Why is woodland creation so important?
- What support is available for woodland creation?
- What additional benefits can woodland bring to the farm business?
- What is involved in woodland creation?
Why Woodland is Important
The UK government has set a target of planting 9000 ha per year with trees in England, 30,000 ha of new trees in the UK, by 2025. Only 13% of the UK’s landscape is currently covered by woodland, in contrast to 42% woodland cover in mainland Europe. Yet native woodland is one of the best ways to tackle the climate crisis, as well as bringing benefits at a local level.
A mixed woodland has the potential to store up to 200 tonnes of carbon per hectare, making them vital to reaching the UK’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Conifer woodlands have even greater potential, being able to store 500 tonnes or more after 50 years. Woodlands bring further benefits for biodiversity, providing habitats and food sources for entire ecosystems, including plants and fungi, bugs, small birds and mammals and larger predators or grazing species like deer.
What Support is Available for Woodland Creation?
Having opened for applications on the 9th June this year, the EWCO is the latest scheme to offer farmers and landowners financial incentives for tree planting. Alongside the reduction of the minimum area to just one hectare, the reduction of minimum block size to just 0.1 ha, and the minimum width from 30m to 20m, or 10m for riparian buffer strips, the grant offers up to one hundred per cent of eligible standard capital costs, plus additional funding for woodland which provides wider benefits to the public and environment. This makes tree plating easier and more accessible to a wider range of landowners
£15.9 million has been made available for the first year of EWCO. Capital funding is capped at £8500 per hectare, to cover trees, fencing and protection. Stackable payments of up to £8000 per hectare may be made on top of this for further benefits, such as nature recovery, riparian buffers, access, close to settlements, water quality and flood risk reduction. So, for example, tree planting close to a river, which affords benefits to a neighbouring settlement, could be eligible for two stackable benefits. Eligible woodland will then receive a maintenance payment of £200/ha per year for ten years. You can find out more about EWCO and the payments available here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/992404/FC_Woodland_Creation_A5.pdf
Another big change with EWCO is that eligible land under a EWCO Agreement can also be used to continue claiming payments under the Basic Payment Scheme, making it one of the more remunerative schemes available.
Eligibility for EWCO is very wide. Eligible land must be in England, not already classified as woodland or under any existing requirement or obligation to create woodland, and not under an existing scheme which has more than five months left to run at the time of the EWCO application. As with most tree planting grants, the issue is long-term management control of the land, and EWCO eligibility criteria demand that the land be under full management control of the applicant and any counter-signatories, and not be subject to any dispute between landlord and tenant. If you are already in a woodland creation scheme and want to transition to EWCO, you may have already heard from the Forestry Commission. You can find out if your land is eligible for transition here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-do-i-transition-my-woodland-creation-scheme-into-the-england-woodland-creation-offer
The Benefits of Woodland to Farm Businesses
Correctly sited and managed woodland can bring huge benefits to farm businesses as well as to the environment. Woodlands offer diversification opportunities such as the sale of timber products or Christmas trees. These options can boost farm income, but if you are considering diversification you should check carefully whether your business plan is compatible with restrictions linked to any funding you receive. While tree planting for saleable timber cannot be counted towards carbon sequestration, it is also important to remember that sustainably grown timber for use in construction uses far less energy overall than the production and use of plastic or steel alternatives. In the future, carbon sequestration options may be another source of farm income. The ability of farmers to sell carbon storage to offset carbon release in other industries offers the prospect of payments over the course of 30-100 year contracts. This is an exciting prospect, but is a diversification option still very much in its infancy. Tree planting is a long-term commitment, and it will take up to thirty years for trees to mature to a level where they are able to sequester carbon effectively. If this is something you are considering, then the earlier you begin to plant the better in terms of maximising your carbon storage and income potential.
Careful integration of trees and shrubs into livestock management systems can also boost production and improve animal welfare, particularly for sheep. The benefits of tree planting to sheep flocks has been studied in Pontbren, in Wales, in a project led by a group of upland farmers. The project used woodland management and tree planting to improve flock health and farm businesses. Over ten years, the Pontbren Project planted 120,000 new trees and 16.5km of new hedgerows. The project found that sheep and soil health were both significantly improved through the use of tree and hedgerow planting, and this is particularly exciting considering the smaller minimum requirements of the new EWCO.
The benefits for sheep farming include creating better conditions for outdoor lambing. Increased shelter and shade created by woodland bordering lambing fields has been shown to reduce lamb losses by up to 30%. Better shelter from trees and hedgerows can also lengthen the grass growing season, by reducing evapotranspiration in dry seasons and improving infiltration in wet weather, giving an increase in pasture growth of up to 20% in protected areas. Increased infiltration reduces run-off as well. The Pontbren Project has recorded that the areas of land with tree cover now show 60 times the infiltration rates of the uncovered pasture 10m away. Improved boundaries created by woodland or even hedgerows can also reduce contact with neighbouring flocks, resulting in better biosecurity and reduced disease transmission.
With these figures in mind, it is possible that carefully chosen and sited woodland could increase lamb survival rates, cut down feed costs, and improve foot health and biosecurity by creating drier, better protected fields, as well as providing significant environmental benefits. For further information on how tree planting can benefit sheep farming, see: https://www.nationalsheep.org.uk/workspace/pdfs/nsa-sheep-and-trees-for-website.pdf
What is Involved in Woodland Creation?
The key to successful woodland creation is the right tree in the right place. The new EWCO, with its smaller minimum areas is more suited to planting on small patches of unproductive marginal land and to difficult-to-access field corners. This makes it more suitable to an English context, and more accessible to smaller upland farmers, but it is important to do your research, seek out advice, and choose sites which are likely to be successful for you. Taking advice, careful planning, and setting clear objectives is essential. Applications for woodland which will extend existing native woodlands, create new shade over watercourses, or provide public access will be particularly welcomed to the scheme.
The types of trees, and creation methods are also important to consider. EWCO offers support for natural colonisation as well as, or instead of tree planting. This is an important consideration when creating woodland to enhance biodiversity.
For full Forestry Commission guidance for EWCO, visit: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/england-woodland-creation-offer