Arable farming forced to move, flood plains expanding and more tree planting needed - climate change is making subtle but rapid changes to the fertile, green and often rather wet landscapes that have shaped Britain’s traditional identity, as Jon Herbert discovers.

The rolling shires and water meadows of ‘olde’ rustic southern England — plus the remote hills, fells and lakesides of the wider British countryside — might not be around in their present form for too much longer.

What seems permanent and natural today is already the result of continuous change. “Ancient” woodlands that thrived on the nourishing new mineral-rich soil left after the ice age’s last retreat 11,700 years ago gave way to the plough and axe long before permanent roads began to join-up newly formed market towns and industry.

Return of the trees

But the wheel is now turning faster and could go full circle for environmental and political reasons. Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens have all made tree-planting a competitive election issue, vital for the UK to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions neutrality by 2050.

The message is made more urgent by news from the World Meteorological Organization that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other GHGs – that which is already there, plus what we are adding – reached new highs in 2018 at 407.8 parts per million (ppm).

Why is this important? New research shows that global warming is moving England’s arable farming northwards and westwards which will force some coastal communities to relocate, while others build on expanding flood plains. This research should make everyone think very carefully about their sustainable future.

The garden of England moves north and west

Despite flooding in Yorkshire, the Midlands and south west England, the Met Office and University of Exeter researchers predict that the worst case, but possible, scenario of 4C to 5C temperature rises with lower rainfall, could turn south and east England into drier grasslands only suitable for grazing.

Central England would then be 57% drier in summer and 33% wetter in winter, with Kent, Suffolk and even Lincolnshire too dry for arable farming without massive volumes of water piped expensively from wet areas like Scotland. Instead, agricultural output would refocus on places like the higher slopes of Wales and the North Country.

A land report published by Nature also finds that agriculture, forestry, wetlands and bioenergy could add some 30%, or 15 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), to the global mitigation tally needed annually to counter a 1.5C rise by 2050.

Farming debates

However, this also opens up heated debates, with as yet few hard answers, about the future of intensive versus extensive agriculture, and the growing sensitive ethical, political and technical debate around animal husbandry for human consumption.

Former Defra advisor, Professor Sir Ian Boyd believes that future climate policies will mean more trees and hedges but fewer grazing animals as red meat consumption falls. In contrast, the National Farmers Union (NFU) foresees more low-carbon grazing animals raised on well-watered UK land exported to less favourable places.

Sir Ian says red meat-eating must fall to meet the UK’s net-zero emissions target and adds that sheep and cattle can be reared more carbon-efficiently on intensive high-tech farms where they mature more quickly and belch methane less during shorter lives. He also notes that under international agreements, emissions must be measured in their country of origin.

The NFU counters that this means rearing livestock on water-intensive imported soya rather than “the soggy fields of Britain, Ireland and New Zealand”. Dung from grazing is also said to increase carbon stored in soils.

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago”

The Chinese proverb continues that the second best time is now, a fact politicians seem to be waking up to belatedly.

In November, the Conservatives promised to plant 30 million new trees annually on 30,000 hectares of land up to 2025. The Lib Dems want 60 million to increase the UK’s forest cover by a million hectares by 2045. The Greens intend to plant 700 million by 2030. Labour then said its target would be two billion by 2040 – 270,000 a day. Less than 15,000 were planted in the year to March 2019.

This parallels new studies that we have overlooked the ability of forests to adapt physiological, as in greater foliage, to cope with a warming world. But only if temperature rises steadily in line with carbon dioxide increases. Too fast a rate could trigger tree mortality.

Although the aim is to create giant carbon sinks, trees also absorb harmful airborne pollution, such as PM10 particles, reduce cooling costs and flooding risks. Europe’s peatlands lock up five times more carbon than its forests but are fragile, 40% drier than 1,000 years ago and could reverse to become carbon sources rather than sinks.

A study from the Swiss university ETH Zurich has identified 1.7 billion hectares of currently treeless land globally where 1.2 trillion saplings could grow naturally — circa 11% of the world’s land area – which in 50 to 100 years could remove 200 billion tonnes of carbon. The IPCC in contrast suggests 57 billion tonnes commensurate with a 1.5C temperature rise.

The Swiss study adds that the world currently has an estimated 3 trillion trees, half pre-civilisation levels. Two-thirds of land, or 8.7 billion hectares, could support trees. Some 5.5 billion hectares already do. Of 3.2 billion treeless hectares, circa 1.5 billion, grow crops. That leaves 1.7 billion for new forests which do not preclude livestock grazing.

Ethiopian leadership

Huge figures? Ethiopia planted more than 353 million trees in 12 hours on 29 July 2019 as part of its “Green Legacy” campaign. Danish citizens recently had a digital opportunity to “plant trees” as National broadcaster TV2 aired “Denmark Plants Trees” to raise funding to plant one million across the country.

Time and tide wait for no-one

Other topical natural forces are threatening to reshape the UK landscape — floods and sea level rises. About 10,000 new homes are still scheduled for construction on flood plains because there is nowhere else for them to go! The Government’s independent environmental advisor, Committee on Climate Change (CCC), says some 1.5 million properties could be at significant risk by the 2080s.

The Environment Agency (EA) warns that with an average 4C of global warming, sea levels accompanied by violent storms could rise by a metre in the coming century. Many communities will then have to be moved away from vulnerable coasts and rivers.

EA Chair, Emma Howard Boyd, explained recently, “The coastline has never stayed in the same place and there have always been floods, but climate change is increasing and accelerating these threats.” She added, “We can’t win a war against water by building away climate change with infinitely high flood defences.”

“Resilience includes accepting that in some places we can’t eliminate all flooding and coastal change, and so we need to be better at adapting to living with the consequences — for example, by designing homes that can be restored quickly after they’ve been inundated with water, or potentially moving communities out of harm’s way.”

Good salty news from the North

Start-up, Seawater Solutions , is showing Scottish farmers how to adapt to less rain by growing salt-resistant saltmarsh crops with tidal water seawater. “These plants can create eco-systems and promote wildlife, but they can also feed us in a sustainable way and return health to the soil,” founder Yanik Nyberg is reported as saying.

The aim is to take a piece of land yielding “a couple of hundred pounds per year” and turn it into something to “yield a couple of thousand pounds per year.” And it will be cooler up north!

Meanwhile, the UK will be wet and dry, cold and hot, but to different degrees in different places.

Summary

Climate change is transforming the British landscape at an increasing rate, leaving many property-owners and businesses with crucial sustainable investment and supply chain decisions.

The centre of England’s arable farming will move both northwards and westwards to higher cooler ground, leaving the dry southeast for grazing animals. There could also be a large increase in tree planting and reforestation to help offset flooding, absorb carbon dioxide and improve poor air quality.

Individual businesses and whole communities may have to be moved away from exposed coasts and rivers as sea levels rise rapidly and rainfall in some parts of the country increases significantly.

Last reviewed 7 January 2020