When you tell someone that something is a good idea because it can do one thing really well that person might be interested. If you tell them it can do three things really well they may be very interested. But if you tell them it can do ten things really well they think you are telling lies and possibly hope to change the subject as soon as possibly or look to talk to someone else.
This is certainly feels like my experience of talking to policy makers when it comes to perennial energy crops. However, when it comes to wonder crops like willow and miscanthus there’s no other way to frame this conversation. They have considerable multi-functional environmental benefits and can do many essential jobs very quickly in a resource friendly way.
Despite this, during my 25 year career in this sector, willows and miscanthus have been marginalised or excluded from Governmental agricultural and environmental schemes such as Environmental Stewardship, Countryside Stewardship, Woodland Creation for flood mitigation and water quality improvements, CAP greening measures and the NFU’s Campaign for the Farmed Environment.
Willows and miscanthus are like the child in the classroom with its hand permanently in the air hoping to be asked by the teacher to answer the question. But the teacher always looks elsewhere.
Enough’s enough. It’s time for the Government to put two and two together. If you fund science and academic studies that tell you one thing (i.e. perennial energy crops can provide renewable energy biomass fuel at a reasonable cost, provide good land resource efficiency whilst also providing multifunctional environmental benefits) then you need to respect these outcomes and put into place policy instruments that allow their cultivation to flourish.
Currently the Environmental Land Management Scheme is out for consultation (consultation ends 31 July). This will pave the way for the UK Government to meet its 25 Year Environmental Plan, making agriculture more environmental friendly and meet climate change targets and the Net Zero aspirations. So, do willow and miscanthus fit this bill? Yes perfectly. Are they mentioned in the consultation document? No.
Why is this? I don’t know but like so many times before it makes me very angry and frustrated. One of the most amazing toolkit options for tackling so many of our most pressing environmental problems is essentially being left in the shed. If I try and do a job and I’ve left one of my tools behind I might be still able to do the job but it will probably be done less well and take longer. This is the exactly the same principle. Perennial energy crops and particularly willow need to be at the forefront of the ELM scheme. Not in the shed, not in the toolbox but actually being used so that these incredibly useful crops can make a difference.
If you read through my website you’ll see that I have talked time and time again about the many environmental benefits of perennial energy crops. For risk of banging my head against a brick wall I’ll list them again:
Biomass – perennial energy crops produce a lot of fuel from a relatively modest land area. They are also low input crops. Hence, they are carbon lean and resource efficient. They can also be planted quickly in areas of low tree cover.
Flood mitigation – the hydraulic roughness of willow and miscanthus allow them to stem the flow of water giving more time for people downstream to prepare. They also prevent harmful object floating downstream and blocking bridges and other culverts and causing further damage. This could save money and lives.
Water quality – dirty water can be used on willow plantations as a biofilter. This means that many sources of low grade, dirty water (e.g. farmyard run off, food processing waste water) could be treated without having to go through expensive treatment works. Willow waste water systems have a much lower carbon footprint than the current practice.
Biodiversity – all perennial energy crops support wildlife especially around their periphery. Willow in particular provides habitats and food for many birds and insect life. You only have to walk around a plantation to see how wildlife thrives. And by incorporating additional buffers you can maximise the edge effect.
Pollination services – willows and the plant species that live within and round plantations provide a wealth of sources of pollen and nectar for pollinator species such as bees, butterflies and moths. In addition, willow provides pollen and nectar in late January to late March providing abundant sources at a time of year when there are other sources. This can help rebuild pollinator populations that have been falling in recent years.
Shelter – tall perennial crops provide shelter for animals such as sheep and free range poultry and cover for game birds. Integrated buffer strips in an arable rotation can provide beneficial predatory arthropods that prey on insect pests of food crops.
Fodder – willow and poplar can provide excellent supplementary fodder for livestock. Chester Zoo use willow as a fodder for all their large animals. This is because they like it, it’s nutritious and it’s good for them.
Pharmaceuticals – there are plenty of opportunities to harness beneficial phenolic glucosides and salicins from willow. The presence of these chemicals make the fodder excellent for animals and also means that you can use willow as a natural disease preventing mulch – so called ramial woodchip.
Soils – perennial energy crops are low input and that means less trafficking of farm machinery. This means that soils are improved and less likely to erode. The leaf matter from willow and miscanthus will enable thin soils to become humus rich over the lifetime of a plantation. Willows have been used this way in the Baltic as a way of creating soils suitable for food crops.
Cadmium removal – willow can remove Cadmium and other harmful heavy metals from the soil. Cadmium finds its way into food crops and ingestion can lead to osteoarthritis and bone fractures. UK farm soils have some of the highest levels of Cd in Europe so this is particularly apt in our country. Willow can also bioremediate contaminated land such as landfill sites and former industrial sites.
There you go – ten good reasons why willows and perennial energy crops should be included front and centre in the ELM scheme and I haven’t mentioned air quality, noise reduction, biorefining and bioproducts. And when I say this, I mean that their considerable credentials should not only be welcomed and encouraged but farmers who plant them in the right place should be adequately rewarded.
Oh and just so you know, I am not telling lies. What on Earth would be my reasons? I am an environmentalist, I believe in conservation. I want to see low input agriculture with maximum land resource efficiency. I want to tackle climate change and achieve net zero in my lifetime and I’ve been on the Climate Strikes to prove it. This is a once in a generation opportunity for the UK Government to do the right thing and allow agriculture to become part of a huge green revolution and willow and miscanthus need to be part of the plan. Please, please, please don’t screw it up.