Biomass, comprising short rotation willow and poplar coppice, together with forestry residues and elephant grasses (Miscanthus) offer more than just renewable energy. Huge potential exists for biodiversity, rural jobs and income.

The agricultural industry in the UK is going through a period of major change. Farmers, foresters and policy-makers are exploring alternative approaches to rural land use such as growing sources of renewable energy.

Planting fast-growing broadleaves, especially willows and poplars and managing them by coppicing has attracted a lot of attention recently.

Rather than the traditional uses, these are grown primarily for their bulk – or biomass – and are harvested and chipped for use as fuel or other purposes such as poultry litter or garden mulch.

Modern plant breeding is producing new lines of rapidly growing willows and poplars, which are often hybrids, which when planted and managed can be cut and harvested on a short rotation of four to six years.

The application of bio-technology has produced cloned plants of vigorous hybrids, which permit a greatly increased yield per hectare.

The notion of growing trees for biomass is particularly attractive in areas where climatic and soil factors make agriculture marginal, but trees can grow.

Chips for bio-fuel © Forestry Commission

This is especially important where energy consumption per capita is low and there are scarce, or expensive, local fossil fuel resources.

Forest residues like smaller branches are produced as waste in woodland management operations. Unsuitable for most current uses, they can be chipped for biomass for “green energy”.

A network of new electric generating plants fuelled by wood chips from short-rotation coppice and forest residues is scheduled across the UK. They should benefit both the environment and forestry related industries.