NEW research suggesting farmers could profit by allowing their land to return to forest has been blasted by the National Sheep Association.

The study, conducted by the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, claims that farmers would no longer need to rely on government subsidies if they allowed native trees to return to their land and sold credits for the carbon dioxide (CO2) the forest absorbs.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, calculated that most sheep farms in the UK make a loss without government subsidies, with only the most productive breaking even.

The authors found that farmers with at least 25 ha of land could turn a profit if they allowed it to naturally regenerate into native woodland and were paid as little as £3 per tonne of CO2. If farmers were paid £15 per tonne of CO2 by businesses and individuals looking to offset their emissions, forests of any size would make a profit.

Such a shift would also cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, support wildlife and help to prevent flooding, according to the study.

Colin Osborne, professor of plant biology at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, explained: “Sheep farming in the UK is not profitable without subsidies, but forests that sell carbon credits can be economically viable – so it makes sense for the government to help farmers transition.

“Using public money to actively prevent reforestation in the UK and Europe is morally questionable given the pressure western governments place on the global south to end tropical deforestation.

“Ultimately, these come down to political questions of how we want our countryside to be used, how we value livestock production over the global costs of climate breakdown, and how the government supports farmers and rural communities.”

However, the National Sheep Association, which represents the views and interests of sheep farmers throughout the UK, said it strongly disagreed with the research.

Phil Stocker, chief executive, commented: “There are a number of fundamental flaws in the suggestions thinking that sheep farmers would be better off by planting forests. The report assumes all sheep farmers are still receiving the old style of subsidy, but the reality is that farmers don’t get subsidies anymore. They were withdrawn over 10 years ago with the transition to the basic payment scheme from previous production support. Since then farming businesses have received Government income, but in recognition for keeping land in good environmental and agricultural condition, and for doing specific environmental works through schemes such as Countryside Stewardship. This became a public investment in incentivising and rewarding good environmental land management.

“We are now on the verge of another step in the evolution of farm support and are moving more clearly towards reward for ‘public goods’, things that farmers deliver and that society value but that can’t be recouped from the normal marketplace. So, sheep farming is not subsidised, farmers are increasingly simply being rewarded to deliver wider goods that the public value.”

The NSA said it is also concerned about the lack of unity over the subject of food and farming, with ideas being proposed without the thought for a national food strategy.

Mr Stocker continued: “To expect sheep farmers to give up farming sheep and plant forests ignores two basic facts; firstly sheep farming is more than just a business, it is part of our culture and heritage and farmers get huge pride and satisfaction from farming sheep; secondly, it’s really easy for scientists to justify the planting of forests through a carbon calculation alone because it is easy to measure how much carbon is in a tree and then apply an offset value. What these scientists ignore is that we have to look at land management on a multi- functional basis, not just one metric of carbon.

“Our sheep farmers are managing one of our most precious resources – grassland – while also producing fantastic and nutritious food from it. Grassland builds and stores soil carbon (recent research from Rothamstead showed that soil quality was equally as good beneath grassland as it was beneath woodland), it creates wildlife habitats (the curlew, lapwing, skylark and barn owl are just a few rare birds that don’t live in forests), it enables people to improve their mental and physical wellbeing, and it avoids wildfires with their huge environmental consequences. In addition, sheep farming is at the core of many rural communities and economies, most of which the public benefit from and enjoy when they come to the countryside.”

He added: “I appreciate trees as much as anyone but sheep farming and our grasslands are some of our most benign land uses, with so many positive attributes, and to think that we should create policies to destroy these by creating forests is short sighted in the least.”

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