The first legislative programme of the 6th Senedd included a bold promise to plant a Welsh national forest stretching from the north to the south of our country, writes Jonathan Edwards MP.
In reality, this is the spin behind a policy of increasing the Welsh land area covered by woodlands and trees from its current 20% (twice the geographical coverage of England) at a rate of 10,000 acres per annum.
Anyone who recognises the challenges of the climate crisis will support a policy of increasing woodland. However, the debate on this issue far too often fails to recognise the contribution grasslands and grassland systems play in providing an important carbon sink.
The Welsh Government must implement its policy strategically or risk further undermining our agricultural sector, sustainable rural communities, and the unique linguistic and cultural traditions maintained by farmers in our country.
There is growing evidence of Welsh farms being speculatively bought by wealthy people and large multinational companies from outside Wales for unregulated woodland planting. This is happening at an accelerated rate.
Of course, the major issue this creates is that once an agricultural holding is lost to woodland, it won’t be returning. This is why we need strategic thinking and control over how policy is implemented. If not, we risk seeing our agricultural base dismembered.
The Welsh Government must start working with our farmers and including them in their woodland planting strategy.
If every farm holding is empowered to take on a share of the work required to meet the Welsh Government’s targets, the objective could be easily achieved sustainably, without destroying farming. That could be done in a way that uses agricultural support to keep farms afloat and meet climate targets.
Indeed, as has been successfully proven in Scotland, strategic wood planting on farms can easily be incorporated into grazing based agricultural systems.
At present, rich outsiders are buying up Welsh farms and coining Glastir, meaning that funding allocated to support Welsh agriculture is being syphoned out of our country.
Furthermore, there is evidence of large multi-national companies purchasing Welsh farms and planting whole scale on their acquired new acreage to offset their carbon emissions as businesses.
Such activity is extractive in nature from a Welsh economic point of view.
The Welsh Government should look at three policy interventions that could make sure the transitional approach they desire happens in a regulated manner which helps rural communities thrive.
Firstly, farm holdings should be set a maximum limit based on the national woodland target, say 10% of their holding, for tree planting.
Secondly, Glastir and woodland planting schemes should only be available to active farmers, using a tighter definition of an active farmer based on primary food production. This would stop speculative purchases and the pillaging of Welsh agricultural support from outside our country.
Lastly, woodland planting needs to be incorporated into the relevant Welsh Government planning Technical Advice Note.
It’s jarring that a farmer wanting to build a bungalow on their land so that farmers can pass on the business to their children faces the full bureaucracy of planning, whilst a 100 acre plus farm could have trees planted across the full acreage, and in doing so completely changing the local landscape, without any planning control.
I am probably asking too much as all this would entail Labour Ministers working with farmers to achieve a common national goal instead of dictating from Cardiff Bay.
Yet, as someone who believes our primary responsibility as politicians should be to help our communities thrive, I urge the Welsh Government to change their approach and to do so before it is too late.
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