Uneconomic farmland in Yorkshire can play big role in country's tree planting mission - Sir William Worsley

Vast untapped potential to plant trees on poorly performing farmland must be unlocked to help dramatically escalate the country’s attempts to mitigate climate change, according to the Government’s Tree Champion.

Sir William Worsley, the Government's Tree Champion, pictured with his wife Marie-Noelle at Hovingham Hall. Picture by Simon Hulme.

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Yorkshire landowner Sir William Worsley, giving his first interview since being reappointed in the role last week, told The Yorkshire Post that planting trees on uneconomic arable and sheep grazing land could also make more financial sense for farmers, particularly if Whitehall uses its proposed “public goods” farm payments model to

incentivise farmers to do so post-Brexit.

Sir William, of Hovingham Hall, is tasked with accelerating tree planting rates in England and the latest Forest Research findings reveal the scale of the challenge he faces. Just 1,420 hectares of trees were planted in the year to March, far below a minimum of 5,000 hectares that is needed annually if the Government is to meet its target of woodland cover on 12 per cent of all land in the country by 2060.

The Government has also committed to Britain becoming net zero in greenhouse gases by 2050. The role trees can play is “significant”, Sir William said.

“Tree planting is really important because trees are the most economic way to sequester carbon, but accelerating tree planting is a challenge. There are lots of pressures on land managers for different things,” he said.

Nonetheless, poorly performing farmland presents an opportunity, Sir William said.

“We need more trees on farms. We have the threat of Chalara with ash, our hedgerow trees are a very important part of our landscape and we need to plant more.

“Yorkshire has a lot of good farmland and we need to look after and use it to produce food.

“Moorland and important landscapes are not suitable for putting trees on, but there are areas of poor quality land that could be planted.

“There is quite a lot of poor economic farmland in our part of the world that could see a better return than from sheep. Those sort of areas tend to be valley sides rather than the tops of hills.

“We need to look at these sorts of areas for tree planting,” Sir William said.

The Government has proposed phasing out current European farm support payments by 2027 and replacing them with payments for the delivery of “public goods” under a new

Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). Sir William said the scheme is “crucial” to stimulating tree planting on farms.

“If we get the design of this scheme right, we can really incentivise people to plant trees. A future ELMS could be really beneficial,” he said.

A woodland creation grant available as part of the existing Countryside Stewardship scheme offers up to £6,800 per hectare for planting trees on farmland, but take up of agri-environment schemes has been hindered by mistrust over long payment delays, for being overly prescriptive and too bureaucratic.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs insists landowners who sign up to the schemes now will be “well-placed” in the future to benefit from ELMS.

The Government has so far hinted that it is willing to recognise trees as part of that future payments model, with financial support set to be offered for environmental outcomes, including for thriving plants and wildlife, reduced risk of flooding and drought, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.