Wales’ 100,000 hectare target for more trees

John Osmond unveils a conference on one of the Welsh Government’s more ambitious sustainable development objectives

One of the Welsh Government’s lesser-known but highly desirable targets is to substantially increase Wales’ woodland cover over the next 20 years, by 100,000 hectares. If achieved that would mean that trees, compared with some 14 per cent today, would cover about 20 per cent of Wales. The main aim is to mitigate the impacts of climate change – trees absorb carbon – but other benefits would be substantial as well.

Farmers would have an increased source of timber to use for fuel and for fencing. Trees provide shade for livestock and help control water flowing off the uplands. And wildlife benefits, too, from the more varied habitats that are created.

However, reaching the target presents a formidable challenge. It will require planting an average of 5,000 hectares a year over the next 20 years. This is a level of planting that has only been once achieved since the end of World War II, in 1960. And in those days most trees were conifers, planted by one organisation, the Forestry Commission, on large estates in upland Wales.

Today’s plans are completely different. The aim now is to plant mixed woodlands of largely broadleaf species, on relatively small plots of land, and by many hands – mainly those of Wales’ 30,000 or so farmers.  How this might be achieved will be the subject of a conference that the IWA and the Forestry Commission Wales are holding on 9 July – details here.

If farmers are going to be persuaded to engage with this ambitious programme they will need plenty of inducements in the form of grants, through the Welsh Government’s newly created Glastir agri-environment programme. It will probably need changes to the tax regime to encourage planting as well, though that is something the Welsh Government will have to persuade the Treasury about. It is also something the Silk Commission, which is examining the National Assembly’s taxation powers, should look at.

In addition, and perhaps more fundamentally, there will have to be a fundamental shift in the way farmers regard woodlands. Over the last century there has been a growing apart of mainstream farming from woodland management. Farm intensification, pushed by the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy, has driven a wedge between the two which, in previous generations were regarded as more compatible activities.

If we are to plant more trees on the scale that is being envisaged then our farmers will need to regard trees on their land in the way their grandfathers did – not as a threat to the productive use of land, but as an integral part of the culture of farming.

Another thing is going to have to change as well and that is our approach to conservation.  There are those in some of our environmental organisations that regard any change of land use as a potential threat rather than an opportunity for species conservation.

So where are all the new trees going to appear across our landscape?  The answer will vary from farm to farm. Every holding has odd corners of land which are relatively underused – maybe a watercourse here, or a bracken-covered slope there.  However, what many of these areas of land have in common is described by ‘ffridd’, a word in the Welsh language which has no English translation. It describes the habitats between the uplands and lowlands of Wales, a diverse mixture of grass and heathland with bracken, scrub (often hawthorn and gorse) or rock exposures.

The ffridd zone is difficult to define in terms of a single vegetation community as its primary characteristic is a collection of various habitats. It can perhaps be best described as the mosaic of fragmented and diverse habitats found at the interface of the uplands and lowlands. It is almost exclusively found on slopes, particularly those areas that cannot be effectively farmed due to steepness or the frequency of rock outcrops and scree. It is here where we can expect to see a large proportion of the ambitious 100,000 hectare target being met.

There will be more on all of this in a report the IWA will be publishing ahead of the conference in July. The Welsh Government is keen to acquire an international reputation for sustainable development which is built into the National Assembly’s constitution. Increasing our tree cover will be one acid test.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.