Beef or…Willow? Part 2

A recent episode of the BBC programme ‘Countryfile’ (26 January, 2014) saw our local MP criticising certain intellectuals for wanting to impose their ‘fantasies’ on the uplands in restoring them to natural woodlands, or ‘re-wilding’ as it has become known. His claim was that the hills had been in their present, treeless condition for 3000 years, and sheep farming is the business of the uplands. Unsurprisingly he made a lot of sense to our farmers. The same programme also showed our local Geltsdale RSPB reserve, and the apparently successful results from trying to combine sheep grazing with wildlife habitat restoration.

The argument was primarily about sheep grazing, although most upland farms also run cattle for beef as well. But as far as farming communities are concerned, stock rearing is the only method of land management in this area that yields a living. Without it, people can see no hope for the local community. Indeed, there are very few of the upcoming generation showing any interest in following their parents and taking on the family farm. At stake is a real worry about the future.

The idea that upland farming yields a living, of course, is itself a fantasy, and only tenable so long as the EU continues to pay generous CAP subsidies to our farmers. As soon as they cease, so would any form of ‘traditional’ upland farming in the UK. One wonders what would happen if the UK were to leave the EU.

So we are continuing our exploration of what the land can yield productively, that is not monocultural, that is rich in biodiversity, and that works with the land, rather than against it.

Last year, with the help of an extremely generous discount from Trees Please in Hexham (because they knew we were a church-related project), we planted over 1000 willow and poplar hybrid saplings in a ratio of 3:1. Permaculture principles suggest each element in a design must have more than one function, so the purpose of the planting was fourfold:

  1. Increase biodiversity. Willow hosts the second largest diversity of insects of any native tree in the UK (after oak). This in turn provides a rich and diverse food source, as well as popular shelter, for many different species of passerines. We are using a mixture of willow and poplar to ensure it is not a monoculture.
  2. Provide shelter. Quick growing willow and poplar planted along the southern and western borders of our land will soon provide a wind break from the sometimes strong south-westerlies coming in from the Solway.
  3. Soak up water and out-compete the soft rushes and creeping buttercup. We need a plant that, with the minimum of input from us, will grow well on waterlogged soil, help lower soil water content, and provide an alternative habitat to the juncus effusus that dominates unmanaged grassland.
  4. Biomass. Every 3 to 4 years, through a programme of short-rotation-coppicing (SRC), the willow and poplar will yield a highly productive, valuable, and sustainable, crop of biomass for use in heating.

Planting happened late in the season, and there was a risk that many wouldn’t take.

Planting willow and poplar saplings, May 2013

Planting willow (middle) and poplar (foreground) saplings, May 2013

We experimented with a couple of different mulches: cut and dried rushes; rotted manure; nothing.

Planted saplings with manure mulch, May 2013

Planted saplings with manure mulch, May 2013

Mulch of dried rushes, May 2013

Mulch of dried rushes, May 2013

As it turned out, the worry during the summer was a lack of water! But willow, like Christ, is difficult to put down. It is one of those plants that wants to live, and if it sees a chance of life, it will reach out and grab it. Almost all the willow, and much of the poplar, survived.

The saplings have taken root and are flourishing, June 2013.

The saplings have taken root and are flourishing, June 2013.

The plants that didn’t survive were those trampled by the horse, and even many of them tried to keep going. We carried out no ground preparation before planting, and mulching seems to have had no discernible effect.

End of the first growing season, October 2013.

End of the first growing season, October 2013.

The willow grew by around half its height again during its first season, and required no maintenance from us, other than protection from the horse.

We have now (January 2014) coppiced almost all this first crop to provide setts for a second round of planting, which will double our stock. These are being planted in horseshoe patterns in our top field to create four, smaller, rounded enclosures, possibly for sheltered grazing by a small flock of something, as yet undecided. Solar(!)-powered electric tape fencing is being used to keep the horse from trampling them. The coppiced willows and poplars will now be left for up to three-four years before being coppiced again, this time to provide the biomass harvest.

So willow appears to be a success. It likes the land, out-competes the rushes on their own territory, improves biodiversity, is very low maintenance, requires no ground or soil-preparation or fertiliser, acts as a carbon sink, is easy to multiply, and will yield a valuable harvest. We’ll have to see how many of this year’s setts take, but we’re hopeful most of them will.

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    • Francis on 27th January 2014 at 5:57 pm
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    Congratulations, but sorry to hear you have such a poor MP ! Renaturalisation is the only option I know of to ensure sheep and cattle farming can continue in upland areas. I have seen it in Switzerland and it can work here ! The only real question is how do we renaturalise our upland areas ?

    1. Thank you for your comments, Francis. Sepp Holzer has most obviously been replanting his upland farm in Austria, but he doesn’t have very much stock. What is your experience in Switzerland, and how did it work?

        • Francis on 28th January 2014 at 6:22 pm
        • Reply

        Two aspects relating to Switzerland.
        1) The mountain slopes, and especially areas above roads and villages were reforrested to cut down on avalanches and mudslides etc. If harvested only selective harvesting, to maintain protection.
        2) Forests and woodland areas to act as shelter for livestock, can be belts or widely spaced trees to allow grazing within the forest.
        The area of the Jura is the one closest in nature to that of Cumbria, ie strong winds with plenty of rain. It has plenty of trees and produces beef and some lovely local cheeses ! it’s forests are nearly all within the second category.

    • Ruth T on 27th January 2014 at 5:20 pm
    • Reply

    Willow is amazing. I used some willow pegs to mark and protect two little birch trees many years ago, and even the ones planted upside down sprouted and eventually rooted! Unstoppable, like the gospel, but i do wish people would stop trying to stand that on its head.
    How tall were your saplingsplease?

    1. On our first field experiment in 2009 we used willow pegs to keep cardboard mulch in place. They, too, sprouted!

      The saplings were 4-5ft including roots, but the setts we have just been planting are around 24-30 inches. These will take some time to root, as soil temperature at 1ft is around 4.5degC at the moment (around 6degC at 3ft). When it warms up a little we can expect them to start growing early.

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