A local farmer has planted thousands of trees on some of his best land as part of a radical experiment aimed at improving productivity and the environment.  Andy Gray of Elston Farm near Copplestone, is one of seven Devon farmers taking part in a unique trial, which involves mixing livestock with trees, in a system known as silvopasture.  Here Andy explains why he signed up for the project and what he hopes to achieve. 

We are at the point of massive change within agriculture, when I was invited to join this trial I thought I might as well give it a go.  It’s a huge experiment, with a lot of scientific investigation.   I enjoy the wildlife around my farm, planting more trees appeals to me, whilst the science may prove whether it is as productive or possibly more productive than conventional ways of farming. 

There are seven other Devon farms taking part in the trial, which will run for 12 years. Last winter the seven farms planted trees, using three different planting schemes. 

At Elston we planted 6500 trees across 26 acres, in rows 14 metres apart with a three-metre gap between each tree. Every other tree will be allowed to grow tall enough to produce a canopy and these have been protected with hawthorns, to stop livestock from rubbing and stripping the bark. Between them we have planted tasty shrubs of various species to provide food for the animals and low cover to stop the wind. 

Andy Gray protects his newly-planted trees

All the trees are indigenous including oak, alder, Scot’s pine, downy birch, lime, sycamore and field maple. The low bushes are spindle, elder, holly, willow, hazel and witch elm.

The fields won’t be stocked with livestock for at least five years, but then we will move animals into the wooded areas and scientists will monitor the impact on soil, animal health and behaviour.

Studies outside Britain have already shown the benefits of silvopasture include capturing carbon in the soil, reducing flooding, increasing drought-resilience, improving animal health and boosting biodiversity. But no research has been done about the impact on British farming.

As well as improving the soil, silvopasture adds surface area to a landscape where insects can thrive, providing food for birds and mammals.  The trees slow down the wind, which helps maintain moisture in the soil during the summer and keep livestock warm in the winter. 

Trees provide shade for livestock in summer and keep them warmer in winter

Some farmers think I’m mad to plant trees on such fertile soil but I see this as an economic decision, as well as a way of tackling the climate crisis and reversing the declines in wildlife I’ve seen on my farm in recent years.  

The project is farmer led, farmers identified the concept and then are collaborating with superb scientists who are specialists in the area of research. We initially had support from Innovative Farmers, a Soil Association initiative, and then worked with the  Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and The Woodland Trust to design the silvopasture to suit each of our farming systems. 

The research is being done by a range of partners including the Organic Research Centre and Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research centre near Okehampton   

We need to add in as much science as we can as it is very rare to run an experiment of this size over so many years, new researchers are popping up all the time.

As for funding, the trees, guards and posts were donated by the Woodland Trust and we had help with the planting from 60 volunteers from Crediton and surrounding villages. The world is full of people who are deeply concerned by climate change and welcome such an opportunity to help.  

I have also received payments from the government’s Countryside Stewardship Scheme to plant 15 acres of pollen mixes and 15 acres of plants that provide seeds for wild birds. This will give me an income during the early years when I can’t graze animals among the trees. I get money for them and I can bathe in wildlife, which will be extraordinary. 

Another income stream will come from the 350 walnut, apple and chestnut trees which we included in the planting scheme.  

I am not saying this is the future, I am saying this might be the future. If somebody must break the mould and try something different, and back it with solid research, then I am game. 

Elston Farm is also the home of Farm Wilder, The Meat Box Company and the catering butcher, venison and game dealers, M C Kelly.

Jan 14, 2022
Food & Farming

More from 

Food & Farming

View All