Study claims sheep farmers could profit by shifting to forest

British sheep farmers could profit from allowing their land to naturally regenerate into forest – at least according to researchers at the University of Sheffield.

Experts at the University’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures claim that farmers would no longer need to rely on government subsidies if they allowed native trees to return to their land and sold credits for the carbon dioxide (CO2) the forest absorbs.

However, the suggestion has come under fire from the National Sheep Association, which highlights that farmers are paid for environmental stewardship, rather than a direct subsidy for market prices.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, calculated that most sheep farms in the UK make a loss without government subsidies, with only the most productive breaking even.

The authors found that farmers with at least 25ha of land could turn a profit if they allowed it to naturally regenerate into native woodland and were paid as little as £3/t of CO2.

If farmers were paid £15/t of CO2 by businesses and individuals looking to offset their emissions, forests of any size would make a profit.

Prof. Colin Osborne, professor of plant biology at the Univesity of Sheffield 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.”

Prof. Osborne claims such a shift would also cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, support wildlife and help to prevent flooding.

Tree cover accounts for just 8% of the UK’s land, making it one of the least densely forested countries in Europe – but a national report led by Sir David Read, Emeritus Professor at the University of Sheffield, shows boosting this to 12% would absorb 10% of the country’s climate emissions.

How much will it cost?

Converting land to ‘carbon forests’ without the costs of planting trees is possible for farms close to existing woodland, which provides a natural source of seeds.

However, the research found that even farmers who would need to plant the trees could break even if they were paid as little as £42/t of CO2.

The current market price of carbon is £15; however, the UK government values the true cost of CO2 to society at £52/t, suggesting tree planting could make economic and environmental sense if the carbon price increased.

In England, the government also covers 80% of the cost of tree planting – a system that would allow farmers to turn a profit by charging just £9/t of CO2.

Prof. Osborne added: “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.”