Optimum shelterbelts: right tree, right place

We all know about the benefits of trees on farms. However, there are still questions about balancing functionality and productivity of farmed land with these benefits to ensure ‘right tree, right place.’  Shelterbelts are an established linear pattern of planting trees for a specific goal, i.e., slowing down wind, but currently (in England) the only funded option is a 10-metre shelter wood. By halving the width to five metres, with careful design and management, a range of benefits, beyond shelter, can be built into the landscape whilst reducing land taken out of food production.

Since 2021, the Organic Research Centre (ORC) has been part of the Optimum Shelterbelts (OSB) project which aims to characterise shelterbelts and their effects through participatory in-field trials, bringing together tree suppliers, landowners, wildlife and woodland consultants and researchers to establish long-term studies that produce knowledge and support for a wider audience. ORC work has been funded by the Dulverton Trust. The wider project has also received funding from FWAG-SW, The Woodland Trust, Great Western Community Forest, Cotswold National Landscape, and Protect Earth.

Much research has been done to model the potential benefits from planting trees to form a barrier behind which livestock and crops can be protected from extreme weather including wind, sun and rain. Less research, however, has been done into how this translates into practice, particularly in UK conditions. At the same time, research trials typically focus on single themes, for example, lamb survival or carbon sequestration, whilst here, several themes are being investigated within the same timeframe. Doing this helps our understanding of the impacts of the shelterbelt within and between each theme over time.

The OSB Project Consortium consists of the Farm and Wildlife Advisory Group – South West (FWAG-SW), the Tree Shop, a Forestry Consultant, ORC and 12 participating farmers in the Cotswolds. A uniting focus is a commitment to understanding how to optimise landscape management and care alongside responsible food production. The research element is key to identifying best practice within and between the themes to support farmers in making informed management decisions.

The OSB consortium have now completed the initial establishment and protocol design phase. Eighteen different tree species were included in the OSB design with six species each of shrubs, intermediates and tall trees selected for their leaf distribution and density considered likely to create the desired sloping profile and levels of porosity as well as food and habitat for wildlife. The first OSBs were planted in 2020/21 planting season and over this last winter (2023/24) beating up (replacing dead trees) has been completed.

Planting design for optimum shelterbelts with the sloping profile rising away from the prevailing wind.

The protocols developed by ORC for robust data collection include crop production, animal welfare, microclimate, biomass carbon and biodiversity. We incorporated a range of approaches including data collected by technology, researcher, farmer and volunteer activity. The aim was to devise methods which will not only deliver an increase in understanding of how OSBs impact the farmed and natural landscape across the themes, but to also support farmers in their management practices, (e.g. a method for measuring available shelter), minimising researcher activity (where possible) and optimising farmer autonomy in the long term. The intention is, where appropriate, to develop guidance material from the data collected e.g. best practice management guidelines for farmers to maintain optimal porosity and shelter as the OSBs mature. Alongside the themes addressed by ORC protocols, soil carbon (FWAG-SW) and the economic impacts (David Lewis) will also be measured.

Sattelite image with shelterbelt and sampling points overlaid.
Data collection points for protocols in the OSB trial

The establishment, protection and maintenance work of the OSB project continues with FWAG-SW and the Tree Shop fundraising for these activities. For the research element, the next step is to trial each protocol on farm and to identify the modifications and on-farm management required. Further data collection and refinements – subject to procurement of equipment – will help ensure the accuracy and reliability of long-term data collection. The results will be an important resource both for trial farmers and the wider farming community seeking to carry out best practice at both farm and landscape levels to optimise benefits for crops and animals in the farmed landscape and for wider ecological health.

Final report for Dulverton Trust: April 2024

Associated Agricology Partner Organisation(s):

The information contained above reflects the views of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of Agricology and its partners.

Related articles

Trees for shade, shelter, survival and body maintenance

Trees and hedgerows can improve livestock welfare by providing shelter and scratching posts.

Shelterbelts can protect soil against erosion

A Woodland Trust case study highlighting how trees and shrubs can be vital for arable farms, helping to protect topsoil against erosion from wind and...

Shelter boosts lamb survival rate – planting trees to benefit sheep farming

When shelter is in short supply strategic tree planting makes a real difference. In this case study a Cumbrian farmer shares his experience.

Creating new hedgerows for livestock shelter in Cumbria

Sheep farmer Paul Renison talks about the challenges of farming on the edge of the North Pennines and describes using trees to help increase shelter...

Three silvopasture tree planting designs to suit your farm

Details of planting designs for 3 contrasting farms in Devon who are taking part in a long-term field lab trial to help justify financial commitment...

Tree hay – using trees as livestock fodder

Soil Association Scotland webinar discussing how tree hay can be a valuable way to supplement winter forage and support livestock nutrition and welfare.

Oxford Real Farming Conference: seeking common ground

Phil Sumption picks out some of the ORFC 2024 highlights that shine a light on farmers and growers transitioning to more sustainable and resilient farming...

Agroforestry is the missing agro-ecological element

A farmer’s reflection on the EURAF 2018 Conference… I am an organic, pasture fed and regenerative farmer in the Cotswolds at Conygree Farm on the...

Management and maintenance of agroforestry systems: Lessons from a 30 year old ash silvopastoral trial

Sally Westaway summarises the final AFINET workshop, some of the outcomes that were discussed, and the key people and organisations involved

A cut and paste approach to landscape management… reflections from ORC agroforestry researchers

Three of civilisation’s great current obsessions; Artificial Intelligence (AI), carbon, and biodiversity loss are a focus of one part of the EU-funded REFOREST project that...

Agroforestry – it’s just trees on farms!

Speaking to a good friend of mine recently about agroforestry, and trying to explain what I actually meant by it, I ended up flippantly saying...

Managing your on-farm woodland

Farmers often ask us about the best way to manage woodland at this time of year… Of course, every site is different and the answer...

How do English farmers learn and finance agroforestry? New insights from the Agroforestry ELM Test project

Following a well-received evidence review in which the main factors holding back agroforestry in England were identified, the Agroforestry ELM Team, led by the ORC,...

The Agroforestry ELM Test project: Transforming the English agricultural landscape with trees

Interest among UK farmers in planting trees on their land has skyrocketed recently. Only ten years ago a survey indicated that very few farmers know...

The Pontbren Project

A report describing a collaborative approach to woodland management and tree planting to improve the efficiency of upland livestock farming.
To top