THE Prime Minister has now set out his determination to press ahead with a programme that will see 30,000 ha of new trees planted every year from 2025. The principal reason cited for this expansion in woodland cover is to help us meet carbon emission reduction targets and thereby tackle climate change. Bringing together the issues of trees and climate change creates an almost sacrosanct area of policy that must not be criticised.

However, we must question whether this is the most sensible approach to take. Given the scale of ambition for tree planting and the likelihood that it will take place on land currently used for livestock grazing, it is bound to have an impact on the amount of domestic red meat and dairy production feeding into our retail and food service supply chains.

Enter stage left the Climate Change Committee that suggests the solution is to reduce red meat and dairy consumption in the UK by between 20 percent to 25 percent. Why should British agriculture be the scapegoat when it is responsible for only 10 percent of the country’s carbon emissions? Grass farms already both harvest and store carbon dioxide in their soils on our behalf every day of the week and deserve our support. In fact, we should be eating more meat and dairy products from UK sources to save the planet.

Others will argue that new woodland creates new habitats. Whilst that is true, those new habitats will be at the expense of existing habitats. In any case, there is a vast amount of pre-existing woodland cover which is underutilised and under managed which should be looked at before we aim to plant more.

If a huge expansion in tree cover is going to be part and parcel of Government policy going forward, it must tackle the issue of how trees interact with agricultural tenancies covering some 30 percent of the farmland nationwide and probably nearer to 50 percent in Cumbria. Around half of that area is let under short-term Farm Business Tenancies (FBTs). Currently, 90 percent of all new tenancy agreements are let for five years or less.

Most tenancy agreements stipulate that the land rented can be used only for agricultural purposes as defined by the 1947 Agriculture Act. Woodland is only considered to be agricultural if it is integral to the farming operation, for example with agroforestry. Tenants on short-term FBTs are not going to commit to the necessary investment in tree planting even if landlords were to grant consent. There is a worry too that landlords will withdraw land from the let sector to take advantage of lucrative planting and management grants offered by the Government. This would damage the resilience of individual farm businesses and the let sector as a whole.

Unless woodland creation can be carried out without adversely impacting food security, off-shoring our carbon and environmental externalities, damaging existing habitats and reducing the landlord/tenant sector, the plan must be halted until solutions are found.