What do Welsh landowners think about the Welsh Government’s ambitious target to nearly double Wales’s woodlands over the next 20 years by planting an extra 100,000 hectares of trees? The answer is to be found in a report on a conference we held on the subject that we have just published, here. At the conference last July, which saw the launch of the IWA’s report Growing Our Woodlands in Wales, Environment Minister John Griffiths said his target could be achieved if the 20,000 farm holdings in Wales each added an average of just five hectares of woodland.
How likely is that to happen? Many might think that getting so many farmers to collaborate with the government in the way John Griffiths wants would be akin to herding cats. That’s what I thought when I started looking at this conundrum some months ago. Now I think that, although it is challenging, having a target at least gives us a shouting chance of achieving it. Certainly, without a target, and it has to be said the discipline of benchmarking it over the next few decades, there will be no chance.
The answer given by the landowners is that the target might be reached so long as the Welsh Government and its new environment single body – arising from the merger of the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales – produces incentives that appeal to their self interest. Bernard Llewellyn, Chair of NFU Cymru’s Rural Affairs Board, told our conference that, as a farmer himself, uppermost in his mind was the bottom line:
“My decisions revolve around what I think will add most value to my land. Farmers also have a prejudice in favour of producing food. These are attitudes that we need to change. We need pilot schemes across Wales to test the benefits that environmental goods can bring. This is the way to engage the interest of young farmers who, I think, would embrace forestry, if they could see ways of making it pay.”
Gavin Williams, Chair of the FUW’s Land Use and Parliamentary Committee, said the target might be achievable if farmers were encouraged to use the acid grasslands and bracken-covered land which does not have a lot of agricultural or environmental value. This is the ffridd, the land where upland and lowland Wales meets. There is a problem here, because these are precisely the areas richest in habitats, both flora and fauna, the ones that the Countryside Council is most anxious to protect. Will growing more trees on it help or hinder the protection?
In this endeavor there are bound to be winners and losers. However, mitigating the impact of climate change is behind the Welsh Government’s target, and if we don’t do something about that we’ll all be losers.
In any event, as Gavin Williams put it, “Using such less favoured land will be more calculated to attract the interest of famers.” He continued that if we were going to achieve the target we would have to engage with farmers on their own doorsteps in terms they understood: “It’s no use using phrases such as ‘eco-delivery systems’ and carbon sequestration’. You won’t get much of a response if you use words such as those.”
He added that we also need to be flexible with the kind of trees and the density of planting that was envisaged. For example, we might consider fruit trees which would bring a cash crop in addition to wider benefits of growing the trees themselves. He said we should be mindful of the time-scale that farmers operate in when we emphasise the need to plant broad-leafed species rather than faster-growing conifers. As he asked, “When can they envisage getting the same return? The timescale that broad-leaved species need to mature is not likely to appeal to farmers.”
Ben Underwood, Wales Director of the Country Land and Business Association, told our conference that the current policy drivers for encouraging landowners to plant more trees would not be enough to meet the 100,000 hectare target. There would need to be bigger incentives. Another problem was a lack of policy coherence at the heart of Welsh Government. As he put it:
“Orchestration of the 100,000 hectare target in relation to climate change is the responsibility of the Environment Minister, while responsibility for incentives is with the Deputy Minister for Agricultural, Food, Fisheries and European Programmes. The Environment Minister has told us this isn’t a problem. However, I can assure you that it is.”
An example of a policy gap was the Glastir agri-environmental scheme which assisted with environmental objectives but failed to address the more basic commercial needs of landowners:
“The Welsh Government say they are going to provide a scheme but that this will have to await the Rural Development Plan in 2015. This means there is going to be a four to five-year gap before this central concern will be addressed. We don’t have a mechanism to pump-prime commercial forestry.”
So far only about 1,700 of Wales’s 20,000 farmers have signed up for the Welsh Government’s Glastir scheme which provides them with incentives for planting more trees. About another 700 or so are in in the pipeline. This leaves around 17,500 holdings untouched by the scheme. It is certainly the case that we will only get near the 100,000-hectare target if we raise awareness among the large majority of farmers who have so far failed to engage with Glastir.
Three other broad messages emerged from the conference. It was generally agreed, as I’ve already said, that while the 20-year target is undoubtedly ambitious, it is vital to have such an objective for the sector. It is based on sound environmental thinking and focuses minds on the issue. It will be necessary, however, to ensure that the target is constantly monitored to review progress.
Secondly, ways must be found for persuading farmers that woodland creation is part of their mainstream farming business. It may be that new forms of grant-aid will need to be developed to promote this way of thinking, for example specific support for carbon sequestration. But whatever mechanisms are created they will need to be straightforward and capable of being communicated in ways that farmers can readily understand.
An obstacle to pursuing this objective is the reality that the Glastir Woodland Creation scheme is bound up in the wider resistance by the agricultural sector to Glastir more generally. Moreover, in general terms it is seen as an environmental scheme despite it supporting the planting of conifers. There should be an opportunity in the promotion of the Welsh Government’s forthcoming Rural Development Plan to communicate the benefits of Glastir more effectively as an opportunity for farmers to embrace growing woodlands as part of improving the commercial return of their farm business as a whole. As part of this effort there will be a need to give far more emphasis to communicating the wider benefits to farmers.
Finally, there was widespread agreement that if the Welsh Government’s 100,000 hectare target is to be achieved, areas of unimproved, marginal land across Wales will need to be planted. At the same time there was an understanding that this will involve resolving the competing pressures between the need to plant more trees to enhance sustainable development with the continuing requirement for environmental protection. This will be a major challenge facing the new Single Environmental Body.