Agroforestry is new to Ireland. It wasn’t accepted as a grant-aided forestry measure until 2014 when it was introduced in the Department’s Forestry Programme (2014-2020) after a successful pilot scheme was carried out in Co Cork. It has a stronger presence in Northern Ireland where the first agroforestry research programme was carried out in Loughgall, Co Armagh, in 1989.
For the first five years of the 2014-2020 programme, farmers and foresters showed little or no interest in the scheme but this may be about to change, not least due to a promotional and educational campaign by the Irish Agroforestry Forum (IAF). Skibbereen-based Forest Service inspector Eugene Curran is an advocate of the system so it’s no coincidence that some excellent agroforests are emerging in Co Cork.
Fortunately, agroforest owners are generous in sharing their knowledge as demonstrated by Alan Kingston at a recent field day on his family farm in Kilnaclasha outside Skibbereen.
He is a part-time farmer who incorporates a mix of agroforestry and conventional forestry on half of his 20ha holding, which was originally an outfarm for replacement heifers for his dairy herd. He has converted 10ha of the farm to an organic system where he is building up a pedigree Shropshire sheep flock to produce lamb for local supply. The well-attended field day visited a number of sites including a small plantation where Kunekune free-range pigs were busy feeding between cherry and birch, keeping them free of competing vegetation without damaging the trees. The group also visited the following agroforest and conventional forest sites on his farm:
Apart from the 5.8ha of mixed species forestry, which takes up a quarter of the Kingston farm, the remainder is either conventional agriculture or agroforestry. This is the mix that appeals to him. It allows him the freedom and space to maximise all aspects of his farm including hedgerows where he picks the fruit of guelder rose and elder for jam and jelly making. It also allow him to harvest aronia – or chokeberries – a health fruit we are only beginning to explore in Ireland. He is also experemting cob nuts, a cultivated hazelnut. He plans to develop a cob nut ‘plat’ or orchard alongside elderberry.
The production of berries and nuts appeals to Alan’s innovative approach. Apart from agroforestry acceptable tree species such as oak, sycamore, cherry, alder and sweet chestnut, the scheme allows the introduction of fruit and nut tree cover up to 15% of the grant-aided area.
Alan has a hands-on approach to establishing his agroforestry crops. He completed the planting himself including erecting stakes and shelters which are required to protect the trees. The mixed-species plantation was established by a local contractor under the guidance of registered forester Mark Donnelly.
When asked about his interest in agroforestry, he acknowledges the work of IAF, Teagasc and the Forest Service but says there is a lot of information out there. “I began by reading widely about agroforestry, including Google,” he said. He likes the balance it provides on the landscape and for biodiversity. “My decision to choose agroforesry was because it was a way of introducing trees without losing the land,” he said.
The agroforestry grant is €6,220/ha with an annual tax free premium of €660/ha up to year five. Both payments will be increased in the new Forestry Programme (2023-2027), while the existing five-year premium period is likely to be extended considerably to attract greater interest.
In the meantime, farmers interested in agroforestry should – like Alan Kingston – learn as much as possible about the scheme. They might even consider joining the IAF.
For further information, check out the IAF website (www.irishagroforestry.ie) or contact Maureen Kilgore (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Agroforestry is the integration of forestry with agriculture – crops or livestock – on the same land. It is a flexible land use and can include silvopasture (trees with livestock) and silvoarable (trees with agricultural and/or horticultural crops) systems.
It can also include shelterbelt and hedgerow trees and harvesting forest fungi. As illustrated by Alan Kingston, the system can be as broad and diverse as the imagination of the farmer who opts for agroforestry as a land use.
In his introduction to the field day, Prof Jim McAdam concentrated on silvopasture and silvoarable systems based on his experience of the system since the first agroforestry research programme was established in 1989 by the Northern Ireland Agri-food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Loughgall, Co Armagh.
Silvopasture combines tree growing – usually in rows – with grazing livestock including sheep, pigs, and cattle when the trees are sufficiently strong. Research in Loughgall shows that “silvopasture extends the grazing season, increases biodiversity and carbon sequestration as well as reducing water runoff”, according to Prof McAdam.
When the crop matures it provides renewable fuel and eventually commercial timber. The Loughgall research results showed benefits for livestock, trees and grass. “This proved two things – the animals were getting a physiological benefit from living under the trees and the grass was much more tolerant of shade than people realised,” he said. “In addition, there were things going on in the soil – microbiological activity and nutrient recycling – which made a much more sustainable medium than previously thought.”
He emphasised the importance of achieving balance between tree and grass yield. “At year 12, grass yield began to decline, so we thinned the original 1,000 trees/ha to allow greater light in and we gradually reduced stocking to 400/ha which will eventually be 200 trees/ha.”
Silvoarable systems allow simultaneous growth of trees and agricultural or horticultural crops. In Loughgall a spring barley crop was planted each year after ploughing close to the tree rows. There was no reduction on crop yield in the first five years after planting and all harvesting was carried out easily as the trees were pruned. Subsequently a number of understorey crops were established.
“In England, sylvoarable tillage research showed that farming could reach carbon zero quickly,” said Prof McAdam. “Wide spacing of 14m between tree rows is carried out in barley crops in England to allow combine harvesters to manoeuvre. An added advantage was a decline in aphids in the barley crop due to control by the increased ladybird population.” The mix of trees and crop also resulted in improved soil nutrient recycling and increased wildlife habitat.