Amendment 92

Environment Bill - Report (3rd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:45 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Lord Teverson:

Moved by Lord Teverson

92: Clause 98, page 101, line 9, at end insert—“(c) agroforestry.”Member’s explanatory statementThe amendment enables agroforestry to be seen as a direct mechanism for public authorities to meet their biodiversity targets.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. Following the Sunday Telegraph article yesterday, I should declare my “not-at-all” interest in and non-membership of climate—forgive me—

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

Yes, Extinction Rebellion. That was not where the emergency amendment that we debated last week came from. I will speak to Amendments 92 and 102, and I thank very much the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for their support.

As the amendments specify, their purpose is to strongly raise the profile of agroecology, which is very important for the way agriculture moves into the future. It is very striking that when we think about trees in a rural context, we think of forests and also farmland that on the whole does not have trees or may have trees around the boundary, young trees as part of hedgerows, or maybe the odd copse in the middle, at the sides or in the corner of a field. But that need not be how we practise our tree planting and growing and our harvesting of the products that come from trees.

At the moment we have that divide, but agroforestry is very much a combination of those types of agriculture; it is farming with trees, not farming and forestry. There are great benefits to this. Clearly, it is not right for the whole of the British countryside—I would not argue that at all—but some strong benefits come from it. Those are that we can plant more trees, and more diverse types of trees, and they are not necessarily trees just planted within meadows or pastural land; they can be, for instance, a grove of hazel trees within an arable field too. There are a number benefits from this, in terms of climate change, sequestration, water management, soil health, animal welfare, shade and retention of water. Clearly, there is also the extra income to farming from what those trees can produce, such as fruit, nuts or timber, from the types of wood that can be used for timber, then replanted and replenished. There is a wide range of benefits to using agroforestry and bringing it much more predominantly into farming systems in this country.

In 2016, a survey showed that, in Europe generally, agroforestry accounted for some 9% of land use, whereas within the United Kingdom that was down to 3%. So the purpose of these amendments is to raise the profile of that form of agriculture in England by way of the Environment Bill, but also to have the benefits that flow from it.

I have something to ask the Minister. One of the concerns is that, with the rollout of the environment land management schemes, which we covered in discussions on what is now the Agriculture Act, there are lots of pilots going on but few decisions have yet been made. I understand why decisions need to be made carefully, based on pilots, but there is more and more concern among farmers and land managers about understanding what ELMS will mean at the end of the day to them. In agroforestry, as in other areas of conservation, there is a concern that anything done now means that there will not be extra compensation to them under ELMS in future. So I ask the Minister to give some reassurance that those who implement agroforestry systems now will not be effectively penalised once those ELMS systems come into operation over the next few years.

I do not expect the Minister necessarily to agree with my Amendment 102 for a specific strategy for agroforestry—although it would be great if there were one—but will Defra, as part of its continuing 25-year environmental plan, look carefully at this area and make sure that it is promoted as an important way in which climate change is tackled and biodiversity loss is reversed in England’s land and agricultural sector in future? I beg to move.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative 11:00 pm, 13th September 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for moving the amendment so ably. Its consensual premise is that agroforestry development usefully contributes towards afforestation targets. Although most of the target of 30 million trees that the Government have committed to plant will apply to upland areas, through agroforestry an increasing proportion could be planted on lower ground, which is otherwise, nevertheless and for good reason, often the sole preserve of agricultural production.

Yet, conversely, agroforestry itself, where deployed on lower ground, can much assist afforestation targets as a result of designing fields of agricultural crops with trees planted at certain wide intervals between them. Through agroforestry, as carried out on United Kingdom farmland, it is estimated that 920 million trees could be planted in fields and, in so being, would cause our agricultural output to reduce by only 7%.

The practice brings huge benefits for biodiversity, climate and nature, as well as financial advantages for farmers. Thus, not least, it is strongly backed by informed land bodies including the Woodland Trust, the Soil Association, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, Sustain, the Landworkers’ Alliance and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

My noble friend Lord Caithness has just correctly lamented how many projected targets of all kinds we fail to attain. However, in this case, in seeking to plant enough trees, we are all the more likely to achieve our aims by encouraging agroforestry. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will therefore agree that, as the amendment urges, agroforestry should now be part of legislation as a very welcome and balanced mechanism for public authorities to meet their biodiversity objectives.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 104 in the name of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who, alas, cannot be with us at this late hour. With his permission, I shall lay out his amendment, which would reduce the importation of tree disease by ensuring that all trees planted by or for the Government would adhere to a biosecurity standard.

Over the last 30 years we have imported more and more plants and trees, and plant diseases have gone up correspondingly. We have at least 27 new pests and diseases recorded with impacts on native plant and tree species. Wales alone is set to lose more than 6.7 million larch trees because of the spread of phytophthora ramorum—one should not have to say that at this time of night. Sweet chestnut blight is spreading like wildfire. Ash dieback is well recorded, and its impact will see something like 90% of our native ash trees going and a cost to the economy of £15 billion by 2050.

On the continent, xylella fastidiosa is rampaging through the lands and is as near as the Netherlands and Denmark. It eats everything, basically—over 500 species of tree and plant so far. If it arrives in the UK, the effects on our native species could be devastating, so this is a really important issue. However, we do not need to do what we currently are doing, which is to import a very large proportion of our tree and plant supplies. We could be growing these trees in particular here in this country. The Government are one of the biggest purchasers in the market for trees so, if we are to change the way in which trees are sourced and minimise the risk, it is only right that the Government take the first step. The new biosecurity standard that the amendment calls for would set a new standard in sourcing of trees by government agencies and third parties from UK growers, thereby curtailing the risk of importing diseases on tree stock and at the same time delivering investment that would see hundreds if not thousands of new jobs created. I hope that the Minister can consider this amendment.

I support Amendment 92 on agroforestry, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and declare my interest as chair of the Woodland Trust. To give one example, we did a very interesting experiment in Wales with electronic sheep. It is true to say that shelter belts protected the electronic sheep. Now that we are doing it with proper sheep, those protected by tree shelter belts produce bigger lambs with less lamb and ewe mortality. Therefore, there are all sorts of benefits for animal welfare and biodiversity, and I am sure that the Minister is clear about their benefits of hedgerows and very short trees. Farming needs agroforestry, but nowhere is it enshrined in statue as the desirable way forward, and this amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, would do just that.

Amendment 103 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, whom I have just usurped from introducing his own amendment before I speak to it, is a great amendment. The noble Earl has been doing wonderful work on the UK Squirrel Accord. We really must take effective action on animal damage if we are to see a big increase in protection of ancient woodlands and the increased creation of woodlands that climate change requires. Deer management, for example, is failing in many parts of the UK because of a lack of the co-ordinated action by all landowners in an area that must happen if proper control is to take place. Amendment 103 would ensure that all public authorities play their role and encourage other private landowners to do so in that co-ordinated, area-based way which is essential.

Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Chair, European Union Committee, Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Affairs Committee, Chair, European Affairs Committee

My Lords, a note to self is to employ the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as my speechwriter.

I shall speak to Amendment 103. Before I make my few remarks, I thank the Minister and his Bill team, who met me. We had a productive exchange of views. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who have supported this amendment, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I declare my farming interests, but also particularly my interest as a trustee of the Blair Charitable Trust, which not only has substantial landholdings in the north of Perthshire but runs land on behalf of a number of other substantial landholders, and therefore is one of the largest forestry concerns in Scotland. There are no grey squirrels in north Perthshire but my gosh there are a lot of deer, so I do know about that.

I also chair the Squirrel Accord, which is the coming together of 40 organisations across the whole of the United Kingdom to try to deal with the grey squirrel problem: its killing of broadleaf trees in Britain, preventing fresh broadleaf plantations in, for the example, the south of England being made today simply because the trees will be destroyed before they reached maturity. The Squirrel Accord includes all four Governments of our country and their nature agencies, the major voluntary bodies and the major private sector bodies. No one who has ever been asked to be a part of the accord has said no, and we are a number of years old.

As I said, the accord deals with the grey squirrel problem. Therefore, I am pretty familiar with that. The problem is simply that these animals will destroy the trees before they reach maturity. Therefore, all the planting that we need to do, for admirable climate change purposes, will simply not succeed if we do not put in place a good management system so that the trees can see themselves through to adulthood. As I mentioned in Committee, the Royal Forestry Society surveyed its membership and got 777 responses this year. The grey squirrel was noted as the number one threat to the planting of trees. I meet the Deer Initiative every now and then. It is similarly trying to promote a UK-wide way of handling this.

The Squirrel Accord has a good plan for how to manage everything. It is a plan that involves plenty of science, and the major science for fertility control, which is just one element of it, is being done at Defra’s own laboratories. It is now three years into a five-year project and going well. We have good science and good connections to deliver the product of that science in various ways into the countryside of Britain to deal with the problem. However, if there are refuges then we will get nowhere, because the responsible landowners and land managers will do everything and those who are not interested will do nothing. The purpose of the amendment is to try to cater for that and to make sure that the Government not only have the powers to handle it but will exercise those powers.

At this late hour I will not make many more points, but in the meeting I had with the Minister and his Bill team there was mention that the Government felt that they may have the powers. I, with my rather elderly wig on, felt that those powers probably needed to be newly minted, but it would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether he believes that he really does have those powers, and to hear comfort that those powers will be exercised so that there can be no giant refuges and so that all the work of the Squirrel Accord and the Deer Initiative, which I hope will be reinvigorated, and the work of those up and down the land who are trying to promote the ability to plant trees, particularly our native trees again, will not go to waste.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and indeed all the speakers in this group. On Amendment 103, I have to draw to noble Lords’ attention a study published about three weeks ago by the Woodland Trust and the National Trust of a trial that found that there are practical alternatives to plastic tree guards. I note that the Woodland Trust is planning to stop using plastic tree guards by the end of this year. Given how much we have debated plastics in other parts of the Bill and much discussion of the problem of microplastics, that is very much to be appreciated, while also offering support for the need to make sure we protect young trees.

I will also briefly comment on Amendment 104, so very ably and expansively introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I fear electronic sheep may be wandering through my dreams.

It is also worth highlighting the economic benefits and the local community benefits to strong local economies if we establish tree nurseries up and down the land. We are mostly focused on talking about environmental benefits but let us not forget the potential economic benefits as well. However, given the time, I want to comment chiefly on Amendments 92 and 102, both on agroforestry, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and signed by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and me. If noble Lords have not seen a picture of Wakelyns Agroforestry in Fressingfield, founded by the late Martin Wolfe, there is an aerial photo showing this wonderfully rich, verdant patch of agroforestry in the midst of a desert of industrial monoculture. That photo is just so powerful a demonstration of the biodiversity benefits, the sheer productivity benefits, of agroforestry.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, ran through a list of organisations that are promoting agroforestry. I will not repeat that list, but it is worth noting that none is particularly large. We are seeing agroforestry being trialled—with, for example, trial plots being run around the country and doing spectacularly good things—but we need to see a massive scaling up of that across the British countryside. If noble Lords have not seen it, I particularly recommend the Soil Association’s Agroforestry Handbook. To pick just one example from that, really interesting research has been going on for decades, through the Open University in Buckinghamshire and Essex, using walnut trees. This is an example of how we can use our countryside far more productively for nature and for farming products. Walnut trees obviously produce nuts, but they also produce dyes, abrasives and oils, as well as saw logs and veneers. I return to the point I started with: think of all the jobs and small business opportunities that arise from a far more diverse countryside, not just producing mass, identikit commodities but products that can then develop whole local industries.

Finally, I am aware of the hour and I could wax very lyrical about agroforestry for a long time, but noble Lords will be pleased to hear that I am not planning to do that. I point to the fact that a great deal of interesting research is being done about the benefits to animals of producing trees as forage crops, benefits that can particularly see the replacement of anthelmintics, which are significantly damaging chemicals—medicines and drugs—that produce problems of resistance that can wipe out many of our arthropods. Indeed, instead of using those drugs, we can actually feed animals a mixed, varied diet. I have to look at the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, here. Both of us often speak about the benefits to humans of a varied diet; we also need to think about the benefits to animals of a varied diet, something on which there has been insufficient focus.

Photo of Earl Cathcart Earl Cathcart Conservative 11:15 pm, 13th September 2021

My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken on this Bill. I know that convention says that one should not speak on Report if one has not been involved in the previous stages of a Bill, but there are mitigating circumstances. I have such appalling broadband strength in Norfolk that though I can send and receive emails, due to the lack of broadband, invariably they are not received on the day they are sent, so Zooming is out of the question. I came down during Committee to speak to a number of amendments, only to be told that I could not speak, as I should have put my name down 48 hours beforehand.

Before I start, I declare my interest in woodland and my farming interest in Norfolk. I support Amendment 103, moved by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I fully concur with what was said in Committee about the awful damage that deer and, in particular, squirrels do to young plantations. My noble friend Lord Lucas said in Committee that he had a cumulative tree loss of about 60% due to squirrels. With this in mind, is it any wonder that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said this in Committee?

“In my part of the Chilterns, a large forestry management business is refusing grow beech again until the grey squirrel is controlled.”—[Official Report, 12/7/21; col. 1652.]

If nothing is done, future trees planted using government grant funding will be destroyed by grey squirrels at a wasteful cost to the taxpayer. But squirrels do not just damage woodland. An overpopulation of squirrels will not only bark strip young trees but steal the eggs and fledglings of our songbirds. We are told that broad-leafed woodland can have up to 18 squirrels per hectare if nothing is done. Where they get that figure, I do not know. I have a wood on the edge of my farm in Norfolk of about 1 hectare. Last year, we dealt with about 25 squirrels in that wood, and this year we have so far accounted for over 40 in that same wood. One must wonder what all these squirrels are going to eat, and where they have all come from. As far as their eating is concerned, they are not only going to bark strip young trees, but they will also steal songbird eggs and fledglings, which are easy pickings. They have been known to eat adult songbirds if they can catch them.

We are constantly told that certain species of songbirds are in decline, and the blame is being put squarely at the door of modern farming practices. I would argue that squirrels also have a detrimental effect on songbird populations, and if we want to have a healthy songbird population, we must control the squirrels. In answer to my second question of where these new 40 squirrels have come from, I would argue that after catching 25 in the first year, we have created a vacuum, and it takes only a few weeks for that vacuum to be filled from neighbours who have no squirrel control programmes. They are also prolific breeders.

It would be helpful if the Government, even if they cannot accept this amendment, took steps to ensure that all landowners, and especially government and public body landowners, control their squirrel numbers. I argue that the damage to squirrels is twofold: by bark stripping our trees, and decimating our songbird population. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, and hope the Government does too. By accepting this amendment, they would be killing two birds with one stone.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, we have had some excellent contributions this evening, and I am sure that because of the lateness of the hour, your Lordships do not need to hear my views on this. The Minister will be much more enlightening in his response to the debate.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I offer many thanks to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. Protecting trees and woodlands is a priority of the Government, and I hope my response will reassure your Lordships on this.

I start with Amendment 92, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. There are numerous ways for public authorities to fulfil the biodiversity duty, such as creating habitats for pollinators or other threatened or declining species. However, it would not be appropriate to prescribe each one on the face of the Bill. We want authorities to identify where there are opportunities to make a change, but we do not want to force public authorities to have regard to a particular form of land use that in many cases will not be relevant to their functions. We will provide detailed guidance to support public authorities with both what they should do to comply with the biodiversity duty and what they should report on.

Our environmental land management schemes are about giving farmers and land managers an income for the environmental public goods they provide. We are considering how more environmentally sustainable farming approaches, including agro-ecological approaches such as agroforestry, should fit within environmental land management. Turning to the noble Lord’s Amendment 102, I share his enthusiasm for agroforestry systems, which will undoubtedly play an important role in delivering more trees into our farmed landscape, improving climate resilience, and encouraging more wildlife and biodiversity in our farming systems.

We have outlined support for agroforestry within the England Trees Action Plan, which sets out our aims for expansion, investment and research in agroforestry systems. That includes commitments to support agroforestry across the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery schemes. The England Trees Action Plan also laid out the intention to develop the evidence base for agroforestry, further aiding responsible authorities to invest in agroforestry systems.

Agroforestry systems compatible with basic payment scheme support have been defined in the publicly available Rural Payments Agency guidance document Agroforestry and the Basic Payment Scheme. As the commitment to support agroforestry and definitions of it have already been published, I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, feels reassured and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

I turn to Amendment 103 from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who I thank for meeting me over the summer. As I mentioned when debating the amendment in Committee, woodlands created using public funding must conform to the UK forestry standard for woodland creation management plans. Such plans include steps to reduce grazing from browsing mammals, including through active management, barrier protection, and the development and monitoring of deer management plans.

In the England trees plan that I mentioned earlier, we announced a number of commitments to go even further to protect our woodlands from browsing animals such as deer and grey squirrels. They include updating the grey squirrel action plan, which we will publish next year. We will be consulting with the signatories of the UK Squirrel Accord as part of that update process. We are also working with the UK Squirrel Accord to support the ongoing research into grey squirrel management.

Very briefly, I say to both the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and my noble friend Lord Cathcart that the Forestry Act provides a legislative basis for the management of pests affecting woodlands, which is a core part of management for anyone who receives public money. Given the ongoing work and progress in this area, I do not believe that we require new legislation to ensure that newly planted trees are protected from browsing animals.

Turing to Amendment 104, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his amendment, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for presenting it. The Government are committed to increasing biosecurity, and we support the plant health management standard and certification scheme—an independent, industry-backed biosecurity standard available to the market and international supply chains.

Our existing biosecurity legal framework already implements a comprehensive range of measures to address and minimise biosecurity risks. Recognition of the importance of domestic production to meeting our planting commitments is clearly a very big part of that. We engaged with the nursery sector to inform our England Trees Action Plan and we have provided support for the nursery sector. In the plan, we committed to fund nurseries and seed suppliers to enhance the quantity, quality, diversity and biosecurity of domestic production. We will help the sector to better plan for sapling supply and demand, ensuring that suppliers can produce the right stock at the right time, with all the economic benefits that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned. A further published strategy is not necessary to ensure that this is delivered.

I thank noble Lords for their valuable contributions at this very late hour, and ask that they not press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, I apologise to Extinction Rebellion for having completely forgotten its name. No doubt there will be a picket line outside my farm gate when I return to Cornwall later this week.

I thank every noble Lord for their contributions—particularly, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for her examples and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I look forward to her amendment on a tree strategy when we meet again, which I think we still have to do. And I thank the three noble Earls for their contributions.

I am not going to prolong this evening. I thank the Minister for his enthusiasm for agroforestry and his recognition that this is an important part of the jigsaw for the future. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Amendment 92A not moved.