Beef farmer Clive Bright has been on a bit of a journey of discovery when it comes to having trees on his farm and is now an advocate for agroforestry. On his farm near Ballymote, Co Sligo, he runs a suckler-to-beef system, with all the cattle pasture finished and under Clive’s own brand ‘Rare Ruminare’.

The beef is sold directly to the consumer.

Much of what he has learnt about agroforestry has come about as a result of observations he made of his surroundings and the questions he asked regarding some of the practices that were undertaken on an annual basis. When he describes himself as a lazy farmer, it often raises giggles at conferences but perhaps solution finder is a better term for him.

“If there’s something that’s hardship on a farm then it’s a good thing to start questioning why that thing is difficult. For farmers on marginal land, like myself, combatting rushes is a key one.

“It’s a constant thing trying to tackle them.”

Like many in similar situations, Clive was either trying to drain or spray his way out of them when he began to question why he ended up doing this every year.

A few accidental observations such as spotting that there was green grass on either side of an old hedgerow in a rushy field, led to Clive discovering that maybe trees could play a part in the annual battle against them.

“In my case, I found the soil was completely degraded. No matter what I did with mechanical intervention or grazing, it wasn’t repairing the soil.

“When I questioned why it was that way, I probably became more ecologically literate and I got some answers and rationale on it.”

His farm has historically had an impervious iron pan in the subsoil and Clive found that the tree roots were able to penetrate this pan and improve the drainage characteristics of his soils.

A shelter-belt of alder he planted in a wet area of the farm proved its ability to eradicate rushes through improving the water cycle and restoring soil function.

“I planted alder in a wet area to take it out of grazing as I was sick of trying to graze or top it. The alder repaired the water cycle there and broke down the iron pan so that was an observation that backed up the questioning I was doing.”

Ireland has fourth best tree crown cover in EU

Ireland has the lowest forest cover in the EU but when it comes to overall tree crown cover it has the fourth highest, according to Gerry Lawson of the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF).

He said EURAF had developed an index called the zero tree index and ranked countries depending on their level of tree cover.

Speaking at the international agroforestry conference in Bantry late last year, he explained that advances in satellite imagery meant the tree crown cover of countries outside of forests and urban areas could be measured more accurately. Portugal ranked highest in the index at 48% while Romania, at 82.5%, had the least amount of land under trees.

We came up with an index looking at measuring all different sorts of agricultural land use

Thanks to a large number of trees and hedgerows outside of forestry, the figure for Ireland stood at 59.1%.

Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal after the event, he said: “We came up with an index looking at measuring all different sorts of agricultural land use and on that we superimposed another data set which shows the percentage tree crown cover.”

In her presentation on balancing animals and trees, Dr Lindsay Whistance from the Organic Research Centre in the UK said that trees can play a role in combatting cold stress in juvenile animals.

Lamb mortality

Hypothermia and starvation combined are the biggest factors in newborn lamb mortality.

Encouraging ewes to remain at the sheltered birth site for as long as possible was essential, she said, as a newborn lamb can drop their body temperature by as much as 10°C in the first 30 minutes of life.

Young animals that have access to shelter expend less energy on maintaining body temperature and so achieve higher growth rates than those without shelter, she added.

Calves are affected by the cold and certainly cold and wet together. Calves start shivering if they’re wet and it’s windy, at around 13°C.

She added that if the calves are on restricted feed this rises to 19°C and for smaller calves the point at which they start shivering when wet and in windy conditions rises by a further 6°C.