Sheep farmers could make more money by growing trees instead, says study

Sheep farmers could make more money by getting rid of their flocks and letting their land revert nat

Sheep farmers could make more money by getting rid of their flocks and letting their land revert naturally back to woodland, says a university study. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

Subsidy-reliant sheep farmers could make more money by getting rid of their flocks and growing trees instead, according to a university study.

Alec Birkbeck (left) and David Ketteringham forged a share farming agreement which doubled the size

Alec Birkbeck (left) and David Ketteringham forged a share farming agreement which doubled the size of the sheep flock at Westacre Farms near Swaffham. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

Most sheep farming in the UK is not profitable without subsidies if farmers are paid for their labour, says the research from the University of Sheffield.

But farmers could make money by letting their land naturally return to native woodland and selling “credits” for the amount of carbon dioxide the trees absorb as part of efforts to tackle climate change.

The study comes as the government shifts the post-Brexit farming payments regime away from land-based subsidies, to paying for “public goods” such as storing carbon and stopping flooding.

It says while livestock farming is heavily dependent on subsidies and generates greenhouse gas emissions, the UK has a large potential for restoring and creating woodlands to help soak up carbon emissions.

It found that farmers with at least 25 hectares of land could turn a profit if they allowed it to naturally regenerate into woodland and were paid as little as £3 per tonne for the carbon stored in woods. The credits could be bought by businesses or individuals who want to offset their emissions, for example from flights.

If they were sold for £15 a tonne – the current market price for carbon credits – they could make forests of any size profitable, says the study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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Natural regeneration would work in areas close to existing woodland which would provide seeds for the land. If farmers had to plant trees, they would need a price of around £42 per tonne of carbon stored - although government grants in England can cover 80pc of costs, which makes planting profitable from £9 per tonne, the study says.

READ MORE: Farmer reaps green rewards by growing wheat in an apple orchardThe researchers also questioned whether it is right to pay farmers to preserve “non-natural pastoral landscapes” in the UK, preventing reforestation, while putting pressure on developing countries to curb tropical deforestation.

Prof Colin Osborne, lead author of the study, said: “Sheep farming in the UK is not profitable without subsidies, but forests that sell carbon credits can be economically viable - so it makes sense for the government to help farmers transition.”

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, said expecting sheep farmers to plant forests “ignores two basic facts”.

“Firstly sheep farming is more than just a business, it is part of our culture and heritage and farmers get huge pride and satisfaction from farming sheep,” he said.

Secondly, land management had to be looked at on a multi-functional basis, he said, adding: “Sheep farmers are managing one of our most precious resources– grassland – while also producing a fantastic and nutritious food from it.”

One Norfolk landowner who has expanded his sheep flock to ensure its economic viability – while also planting trees for carbon capture – said both aspects were equally important in creating a mosaic of land uses which worked for both the environment and farm profitability.

Alec Birkbeck, of Westacre Farms near Swaffham, struck a share farming agreement in 2018 with contract shepherd David Ketteringham, which has increased the farm’s flock to 1,200 breeding ewes, grazing 600-700 acres of grassland.

“I think finding a balance is more important than choosing one monoculture for whatever specific gain,” he said. “Carbon-capturing plantations on arable fields and woodland are definitely part of the mix. But if everything was covered in forestry there would be no variety of habitat.

“A mosaic of land use is surely more important as long as we can balance the economic side. We no longer lose money running sheep. We now run a profitable flock for the first time in many years. But it is also the first year in many, many years where we have made a profit with our forestry.

“A lot can be done from an environmental perspective by having a diverse attitude to your land use, so you are not at the whim of any one particular set of circumstances.”