Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Beavers: the engineers of climate action

Chris is on a mission to show that growing food, and making space for wildlife, go hand in hand.

Ladock, Cornwall, England

“Multifunctional and agroecological land uses - like agroforestry and silvopasture - are the way forward. It's three-dimensional farming and doesn't remove agricultural capacity.”

We visited Chris Jones at Woodland Valley Farm in Cornwall as part of our #LandUnlockedTour to find out how he is growing food and making space for wildlife.

Chris is a big believer in the power of one patch of land to deliver many different things. On his organic beef farm in Ladock, he has planted trees for wood pasture, re-introduced beavers, and is bringing back stands of fruit and nut trees. All of this has helped the land boost productivity and biodiversity, give a good life to his animals, and sequester carbon too. Like Chris himself, it’s fizzing with activity and life.

Chris has converted 40 acres of his farm to silvopasture and is an advocate for agroecological farming. We're doing mixed trees, about 40% Oak and then 10% each of Lime and Sycamore. A 25% mix of fruit trees and thorn trees and various other things. We've tried to make it interesting. He insists, This should absolutely be the aspiration. There’s a lot of talk about farming being no good for the environment, but with agroforestry suddenly farming is brilliant for biodiversity. He adds, I see it as the opportunity for tree planting in farmland... without reducing agricultural potential of the land, something farmers, growers and landowners should do anywhere and everywhere. We need to be adjusting our mindsets, because we know there’s already such fabulous examples of agroforestry working in the UK.

He explains that agroecological farming is also brilliant for animal welfare and productivity, If you put livestock on a bare hillside, they have to use a certain amount of energy to stay alive. If you put them somewhere where there's shade and shelter, they use far less energy maintaining their own body heat, and this means they have more energy for their offspring, or more energy to make wool or meat or whatever it is.

“There's a lot of talk about farming being no good for the environment, but with agroforestry suddenly farming is brilliant for biodiversity.”

Chris is supportive of using land to deliver many different things, such as producing food and creating space for biodiversity, Multifunctional and agroecological land uses – like agroforestry and silvopasture – are the way forward. It’s three-dimensional farming and doesn’t remove agricultural capacity.” What’s more, he is seriously concerned about the notion of sparing land for mass tree planting or projects that safeguard a singular use of land. I really dislike this idea of planting millions of hectares of trees, it just seems mad. Cornwall Council, they have a plan to plant 8000 hectares of trees. It’s going to be really tough to find 8000 spare hectares of land.” With land being a finite resource, Chris thinks sparing it for tree planting poses some issues, If we have our land producing less food, it inevitably puts pressure on the rest to do more – and in those areas that means less biodiversity, fewer people working the land, and more emissions too. What does that mean for the people living and working there?”

Chris thinks there is another way forward, From what I see, if you have, 100 to 200 trees per hectare, you don't remove any agricultural capacity or potential for the land at all. You can have the trees and the livestock, and arguably your output could increase because there’s more shelter.”

“What do cows eat? Grass. So why are we giving them cereals they are not designed to digest well?”

As well as planting more trees, Chris also switched from conventionally grazing his cattle to rotational grazing. It was quite a big thing to stop growing cereals every year and rotating grassland around the farm. But when you think, what do cows eat? Grass. So why are we giving them cereals they are not designed to digest well? We set up some nice herbal leys and have found we haven’t had much of a reduction in the farm’s ability to produce animals.”

Chris adds, What do we get out of it? 11 different species of bats foraging here, 17 different species of dragonflies, for a start. That's without us doing anything special at all. We just made the habitat and they come. Multifunctional land use is absolutely the way forward. Farming can and should be good for biodiversity.”

The work of the beavers at Woodland Valley Farm

Notably, part of Chris’ farm has seen the reintroduction of beavers through a collaboration with the University of Exeter and Cornwall Wildlife Trust. It was actually set up as a learning platform and we have had constant monitoring of the hydrology, by Exeter University. The idea was to assess whether the ecosystem functions performed by beavers, such as building leaky dams, help reduce flooding. Chris continues, There is absolutely no doubt at all that beavers have fundamentally altered the hydrology here. The peak flow leaving the site is now half what it was before the beavers came - that has got to be a significant outcome. He adds, We've also had a reserve of water created. So when we had the drought in 2018, we had a reserve of water that we could easily pump onto the fields. We’ve also seen the potential for cleaning up our waterways because so much silt is collected in these ponds.

“The peak flow leaving the site is now half what it was before the beavers came - that has got to be a significant outcome.”

The beavers are performing so many useful ecosystem functions, And actually, we're observing that they're converting rough and difficult vegetation into more useful vegetation for other animals. For example, there were banks of brambles the beavers are slowly consuming, then behind the brambles you get other things growing, like grass and sedges, which cattle can utilise.

When asked what he thought the government could do to support farmers, he replied, If we're going to get paid money for public goods, we should sort out what public goods are really important. To me, they are carbon and water. If you're farming well for carbon, and well for water, your biodiversity will come - particularly getting beavers in amongst it all. I think it would be useful if we were paid for an area set aside as a buffer next to rivers. I just want to protect our water and gather up carbon.

“I think we need to be heading into a period where a lot more people are working on the land.”

Chris sees the current industrial food system as a problem for farmers, Farmgate prices - it's a real problem. More and more farmers are victims of the commodification of food. The only people really profiting are big corporations who sell fertiliser, sprays, and machinery. Going forward, Chris is clear about how farming needs to change for a sustainable and fair food system, We have to stop spraying and throwing excessive nutrients on things, so intensification isn’t an option. I think we need to be heading into a period where a lot more people are working on the land. I'd like to see many more people growing vegetables. We need more edible landscapes, many more trees which produce food crops, three-dimensional farming. In the long term, the food we produce should really be the by-product of a very healthy environment. If it's not, we can't depend on it.

Agroecology and regenerative farming integrates food production and space for nature - and supporting this type of farming is one of 5 'no regrets' actions we are urging government to take to speed real climate action.