Sheep farmers could benefit from letting land return to forest, new study suggests

Sheep farmers in the UK could profit from letting some of their land become overgrown and return to woodland, a new report suggests.

According to research from the University of Sheffield, farmers could make money by allowing native trees to return to their land and selling “credits” for the amount of carbon dioxide the trees absorb as part of efforts to tackle climate change.

The study comes as the Government shifts the post-Brexit farming payments regime away from subsidies for the amount of land farmed to paying for “public goods” such as storing carbon and stopping flooding.

Livestock farming is heavily dependent on subsidies, and also generates greenhouse gas emissions, with sheep farming accounting for around 1% of the UK’s total climate pollution, the university’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures said.

But the UK, with tree cover of 8%, making it one of the least densely forested countries in Europe, has a large potential for restoring and creating woodlands to help soak up carbon emissions, the study said.

It found that farmers with at least 25 hectares of land (60 acres) could turn a profit if they allowed it to naturally regenerate into woodland and were paid as little as £3 a tonne for the carbon the woods store.

The credits could be bought by businesses or individuals who want to offset their emissions, for example from flights.

If they were sold for £15 a tonne – the current market price for carbon credits – they could make forests of any size profitable, the study published in the Environmental Research Letters journal said.

Natural regeneration would work in areas close to existing woodland which would provide seeds for the land.

As well as cutting carbon emissions, switching from sheep farming to native forests could boost wildlife and curb flooding.

The researchers also questioned whether it is right to pay farmers to preserve non-natural pastoral landscapes in the UK, preventing reforestation, while putting pressure on developing countries to curb tropical deforestation.

Professor Colin Osborne, from the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said: “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.”

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at Rosamedea.com

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