Horses in glade

Large corporates are buying up farms in Wales to plant trees on substantial areas. This is a real problem on many levels, and is not necessarily the most effective land use for carbon capture.

Large corporates are buying up farms in Wales in order to plant trees on substantial areas.

The motive for the companies is that the trees will sequester carbon dioxide to offset the carbon dioxide emissions of the business, or indeed to sell the carbon offsets to another party. Tree planting attracts generous grants from Welsh Government which add to the financial attraction of these schemes. With the vast amounts of capital available to the big companies, they are able to offer sums for the purchase of land which prices out any competition, notably local people.

Welsh Government has committed to net zero carbon emissions for Wales by 2050, so on the face of it, policies to plant trees appear to be a sensible approach towards achieving this ambition. However, this is a clear case of unintended consequences. With corporates from outside of Wales planting the trees and claiming the carbon credits under the UK Woodland Carbon Code , the carbon sequestered under these schemes would not count towards the carbon balance for Wales. Even though Welsh Government pays for the trees to be planted and maintained, the carbon credits belong to the landowner.

This problem reveals the pitfalls of a one dimensional approach to policy. The drive to tackle carbon capture in the landscape does not take into account the many other important considerations for rural areas:

Biodiversity – the trees being planted for these carbon capture projects are generally fast growing non-native conifers, planted in dense plantations. These create habitats that are alien and inhospitable to our wildlife. It would be preferable if the plantations were of native trees. For wildlife, it is even more preferable to maintain traditional grassland and wood pasture habitats.

Culture – local culture is closely tied to pasture. With the disappearance of grassland habitats under a forestry plantation, traditional practices and farming communities also disappear from the landscape.

Economic – owned by non-local corporate entities and covered in forestry, the land is lost from meaningful local economic access. It contributes to the relentless passage of people away from the land towards the urban and industrial paradigm that is the root of the global problems we are experiencing, including climate change.

Ironically, it is not even clear that planting trees is the best way to capture carbon in the landscape. Grasslands and wood pasture can be better at absorbing and storing carbon than forests, depending on various factors.

In a research paper from University of California, Davis suggests that grasslands are a more reliable carbon sink than trees because of the risk of forests burning. Carbon is held in the soil as well as vegetation. In forests most of the carbon is held in the woody biomass, but grasslands store most of their carbon underground. When a forest burns, the significant quantity of carbon held in the trees is converted to carbon dioxide and released to the atmosphere. This is not a significant problem in Britain, but is certainly a major consideration in drier climates.

The conditions for grasslands to be effective carbon stores rely on several factors:

No cultivating – ploughing or tilling the soil, for example to re-seed pasture or grow other crops, releases carbon from the soil. The good news is that it is possible to grow arable crops without tilling, by a method known as direct drilling. And that ‘permanent’ or ‘unimproved’ pasture has many benefits for livestock, for example more nutritious and varied forage and the medicinal qualities of some plants found in these natural pastures. These ideas are practiced in ‘regenerative agriculture’ where the soil is protected by always having the cover of vegetation, which promotes soil health, fertility and therefore productivity, and is effective at capturing and storing carbon.

Grazing – the presence of large herbivores, including domestic livestock, is crucial to this process. Grazing promotes the growth of grass so that more carbon is sequestered into plant growth. The grazing animals convert the plants that they eat into body mass, energy and dung. Dung beetles take the dung underground where it is rapidly integrated into the soil, increasing soil fertility and increasing the carbon content of the soil.

Dung beetles and other invertebrates play a central role in soil health by aerating the soil and moving material around. It is necessary to protect invertebrates by minimising the use of pesticides, especially wormers, and by not cultivating the soil.

There is also some fascinating research on how large mammals can increase carbon sequestration due to their functions in the ecosystem, with the implication that restoring wild animal populations can have significant positive influences on the carbon cycle. See also; Animate the Carbon Cycle  and background papers.

Chemical free – the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides gradually kills the soil and turns it into an inert mineral medium. Healthy soil is full of living organisms that contribute to the life processes of growing and decay and recycling. It is these living soils that absorb and store carbon. Dead soils suffer from erosion and are lost to the wind and rain. At the current rate of soil loss across the world, we have only 60 harvests left before the soil has disappeared. The need for regenerative farming practices could not be clearer.

We require timber for many purposes, but the rush to plant trees for carbon capture could be misguided and is creating other issues. Grazed grasslands, especially wood pasture, provide multiple benefits for wildlife and people. And are nearer to the natural state of the land.