Farmers need to rediscover the virtues of trees

John Osmond outlines the main recommendations of a new IWA report being launched at a national conference in Cardiff today

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

Farmers will need to be persuaded that woodland creation and management is a mainstream part of what they do if the Welsh Government’s ambitious target to substantially increase the woodland cover of Wales is to be achieved. This is a major recommendation in a report the IWA is publishing today Growing our Woodlands in Wales: the 100,000 hectare challenge. It will be launched at a national conference in Cardiff being addressed by Environment Minister John Griffiths – details here.

The Welsh Government wants to increase the woodland cover of Wales from today’s 14 per cent to 20 per cent over the next 20 years, mainly to achieve a net increase in carbon capture to combat climate change. This will entail planting an average of 5,000 hectares of woodland a year, a rate that has been achieved only once since the Second World War, in 1960.

If the target is to be achieved much of the planting will have to be carried out by farmers who are likely to be reluctant to increase the tree cover on their land. Many farmers do not see themselves as woodland managers or foresters. Moreover, there are lower returns on using land for growing trees rather than for grazing or as arable land.

A second major recommendation in the report is that the expansion of woodlands will need to take place in the ffridd areas of rural Wales. These are the habitats that occur on the slopes between the uplands and the lowlands of the country. As we say in the report report:

“If the 100,000 hectare target is to be achieved, areas of unimproved, marginal land across Wales will need to be planted. These are the ffridd habitats where the uplands and lowlands meet. In turn this will require a more holistic approach to the inherent tension between the requirements of sustainability on the one hand and conservation on the other. There needs to be a recognition that new woodlands in the ffridd areas will create new habitats and new biodiversity opportunities.”

The report recommends more flexibility in the definition of those parts of the Welsh landscape where tree planting can take place. At present too much of rural Wales is placed in a red zone where plant is not allowed for a variety of habitat and conservation reasons – other zones are green, where planting is allowed, and amber, where land is regarded as potentially suitable for planting. As we say:

“The traffic light mapping of Wales should be revisited to achieve a better balance between the demands of sustainability – to be enhanced by the 100,000 hectare woodland expansion – and the current greater emphasis on conservation of existing habitats.”

The overall conclusion of the report is that farmers are more likely to embark on tree planting if they can be persuaded that it can be integrated into their overall farming culture and practice, rather than as a separate activity. But, as we conclude:

“This may not be as difficult as it sounds. What is required is for farmers to rediscover the practice of a previous era in Welsh farming a few generations ago, when woodland creation and management were seen as an integral part of our farming culture.”

Increasing the tree cover across Wales by planting mixed, mainly deciduous woodlands, would enhance our land management in a variety of beneficial ways, including the following:

  • More competitive agricultural production through the provision of more shade and shelter, better stock management around streams and steep slopes, better biosecurity, reduced risk of run off, diffuse pollution and waterlogging.
  • Reduced risk of flooding where bands or drifts of deep-rooted broadleaves intercept surface run off.
  • Enhanced landscapes.
  • More woodland, wood pasture and ffridd habitats which support a wide variety of species.
  • More land suitable for game management.
  • More wood production including firewood.

Increasing Wales’ woodland by 100,000 hectares over 20 years presents a major challenge. It will require farmers to plant mixed deciduous and conifer woodlands across suitable parts of largely upland Wales. In turn this will require establishing a new balance between conservation and sustainable development. We will need to weigh the benefits of maintaining existing habitats against the advantages of creating new ones. In addition we will need to return to the practices of former times when woodland management was seen as a natural part of farming culture, rather than being separated from it as is generally the case today.

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