Ben and I have been investigating the world of Silvopasture. That being the practice of integrating trees into the landscape in a mutually beneficial way; supporting explicitly both wildlife and the livestock.
Tree planting at Fordhall is not a new practice – we have been doing it for decades – but until now our focus has been on the conservation of water, soil management or biodiversity improvements. For the future, we intend to take a more integrated approach, by carefully thinking about each species of tree and its benefits to livestock on the farm as well as nature. Trees and livestock have always co-existed; indeed the most commonly recognised shape of a tree is such due to the livestock grazing the lower branches below, giving it that beautiful flat base.
We have long recognised the benefits of trees for livestock at Fordhall, too. For example, our Foggage farming system relies on trees to shelter the livestock through the harsh winters, and we use them to create wind barriers for the autumn gusts. However, their benefits as a feed source has been something we have paid less attention to. That is now changing. We are quickly learning that the casual grazing of the lower branches has been giving our livestock much-needed fibre, nutrients and – in many cases – medicinal benefits too.
To support our learning journey, Ben and I have spent the autumn visiting three wonderful Shropshire farms that are all practising Silvopasture in their own way.
Firstly, we visited Tim Downes of Longnor Farm. Predominantly organic dairy, Tim farms with his father and family on 1000+ acres. Amongst many new and innovative regenerative practices Tim is trying on his land, he has planted vast lines of willow as forage for his dairy cattle. Tim harvests this on rotation, chips it, and feeds it to his cattle to supplement their existing feed throughout the year. Tim said: “The cattle just love the willow chip; they dive straight in”. The fibre in this wood chip helps cattle maintain their weight during the winter months, plus the salicin content in the bark acts like aspirin, with natural analgesic properties.
Next, I visited Peter Aspin of Hollies Farm. He has planted hundreds of trees over the last twenty years on his small piece of pasture land. Peter’s trees are a mix, and whilst they provide shelter and a little forage for livestock, their main purpose is timber or nut production. Peter has not stuck to indigenous species, and has experimented with various species including monkey puzzle trees, which are his pride and joy – Whilst the tree itself does not provide any direct food for the livestock (the nuts are for human consumption), it does act as a strong windbreak in almost any condition, and the spikey leaves provide a perfect hibernation spot for ladybirds.
Finally, Ben and I visited Ian Steele of Treflach Farm. Ian has planted strips of trees throughout his farm over the last five years for shelter, crops and livestock feed. Each tree is chosen for its particular use and benefits, including apple trees for the home. As many of his trees are still establishing, he is yet to allow the livestock to graze the trees.
We learnt something new from each farmer we met. From Tim, we learnt how beneficial willow is as a feed and how easy it is to grow (although we have seen that at Fordhall, too – it can be very prolific). From Peter, we saw how useful walnut can be for flystrike in sheep, and that planting east to west is more effective for tree growth than planting north to south. From Ian, we saw a diversity of different trees all there for their own purpose, each one chosen for the crops it will produce for the farm in the future, including apples and cherry. Each farm is as unique as the land in which it sits, and the soil which nurtures it, but there are similarities, too. All the trees are planted in strips and fenced off with electric fences. They are planted between five and ten metres apart and at least twenty metres between each row.
So, what did we take from this? Well, our plan for the project at Fordhall is to make the most of the existing fence boundaries whilst supporting wildlife and livestock. We have decided to start with the fence line that links the Ringwork and Bailey Site with the large pool at the bottom of House Field. Our first plot will include densely planted willow and hazel, with a larger tree every ten metres (black poplar / oak / chestnut / walnut), including at least one walnut that we hope will help with flystrike (when flies lay eggs in the damp wool of sheep, which can lead to an infestation of maggots when they hatch).
By fencing with stock fencing from the ground up we hope the lower level will establish as a thick hedge and act as a windbreak as well as a wildlife corridor between the two existing wildlife sites -we don’t want the cattle or sheep grazing between the trees in this instance.
Both willow and hazel are prolific growers and they will withstand constant trimming by the livestock really well. Anything that grows through the fence will be trimmed by the sheep and anything above the fence line will be trimmed by the cattle – our own petrol-free hedge trimmers. In return, the livestock receive food, nutrients (fibre / vitamins / iron / antioxidants) and their own medicine cupboard.
And the best benefit of all is that the more the trees are trimmed, the more they grow; and the more they grow, the more carbon they absorb from the atmosphere – we love a good partnership!
We will start planting during our volunteer weekend on the 24-26 February. If you would like to join us, then please email our volunteer leader Mike via firstname.lastname@example.org
Support our Silvopasture project
Help us plant our trees during the autumn of 2023
Donate from afar and sponsor a tree
£5 will cover one small willow or hazel whip and fencing
£50 covers the cost of one established tree and guards
Charlotte Hollins, FCLI Manager
This article was first featured in the Winter 2022 edition of the Grazer magazine. For more info and to subscribe, visit: