Satoyama – Inspiration From Abroad

Satoyama are a landscape found in Japan, the word itself has a few different meanings, in one way it is used to describe managed woodlands close to farmland. Villagers would use coppiced wood in construction and as fuel for cooking and heating, they would also gather leaf litter to be used as fertiliser. The term can also be used to describe community forests, and also an agricultural landscape. The term has had me obsessed with mixed land use since the day I found out about it. To me “satoyama” brings to mind how farming used to happen all throughout our countryside.

Photo Credit: Justin Yoshida via ourworld.unu.edu

            I think the key to managing our countryside for both food and the environment is through mixed land use. I know that grazing is important for farming livestock, and that it is easier to specialise in one area of managing land for money, but there are too many benefits to people, farming and the environment for this idea to be ignored.

            A traditional satoyama in Japan is a landscape that has been farmed in the same way for centuries, used to grow rice, vegetables, fruits, nuts and even fish while allowing wildlife to adapt to the seasonal changes of the people who live there. It’s an area that embodies the nature worshipping and community minded practices and beliefs of Shintoism and Buddhism. A satoyama is alike to coppicing in Britain in that they both have species which have specialised to each environment. An example in Britain would be how butterflies are supported by the changing ground flora of a hazel coppice, in a satoyama this is even exceeded by a symbiotic relationship which has been formed with catfish, which feed on insects in the waters of rice paddies, keeping the crop free from would-be pests. The main benefit which we would see in our changing climate is the woodland. Helping to regulate temperature, managed woodlands of pine, oak, cypress, cedar and bamboo also help with regulating water, supplying wood for charcoal, tool handles, fuel and even logs which are propagated to grow shitake mushrooms. Now when we combine these things with wanting to promote biodiversity and sequester carbon in Britain, the possibilities are endless. In Britain, many farms once would have used their hedges not only as barriers for livestock, but for fuel and food, our orchards much for the same thing, not to mention the small coppices dotted around which now stand unused and derelict and not much use to anyone or anything.

The movement from depending on sustainable wood fuel and construction materials to oil has effected both the Japanese and British farming landscapes. With less of an emphasis on producing fuel, we have lost the other resources and products that come from our woodlands. Alongside fuel we produced sustainable and long lasting fencing, tools, tool handles, most likely tree hay, furniture and building materials. There is a comfort though, as trends move back towards hedge and coppice management, it is becoming easier to see the huge benefits of mixed farming and small scale forestry. Just last season I undertook a large hedge laying job, it wasn’t the longest in terms of meters, but they were big hedges and from that one job there was a considerable amount of firewood produced. There was also enough brash to produce 8 tonnes of chipped wood, which has been used to mulch a newly planted hedge, which in turn when it is mature enough will produce more food for wildlife, shelter for livestock and wood for fuel.

Just a portion of firewood from laying this section of hedge.

            As I’m yet to find a word that is comparable to satoyama, I’d probably refer to this type of land management just as mixed farming, but to include in that agroforestry, possibly even the modern term “permaculture.” The benefits I’ve mentioned so far have mostly been referring to conservation, but the financial benefits are also definitely there. A lot of farms I’ve worked at barely have any tree coverage, and are made up of fields with tired hedges but that is changing slowly as grants help with bringing hedges back into rotation and with planting trees. I’m hoping to write about the ridiculous amount of benefits healthy hedges have, but to briefly outline it, they benefit livestock, crops and wildlife, all of which add value to land, and its output. I’ve been working for a day a week at a local farm which is doing amazing things with regenerative farming and it has been easy to see what benefits the produce from a woodland and a coppice could bring. One benefit would be browsing, and it doesn’t even have to be done in a woodland, cutting tree hay for additional feed could be that safety net for some farms that suffer during drought, and can also be used for winter feed. Rows of pollard trees could be added along hedges or fences to create shade in the summer, or cut for feed on a regular cycle. If you no longer use wood for fuel, firewood and charcoal are both growing industries in Britain, and could offer work to people involved in coppicing and the sustainable products that come from it, and more jobs in the countryside is always a good thing.

Making fencing material in a small coppice in the corner of a field.

            The woodlands scattered around our farmland are a resource waiting to be used, and by being used will be much more beneficial to wildlife and people while helping us to get back to how our land was managed historically. By diversifying with modern knowledge we can make these old systems work even better than they did in the past, and who knows we might be less reliant on the current rise in fossil fuels, using less transport and lowering overheads on land management by using resources that are already there.

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