Farming unions have sounded the alarm as a major new tree-planting subsidy scheme launched by the Welsh government has drawn in big companies in a ‘green rush’ to snap up land, ‘devastating ecosystems and displacing entire communities’.
UK firms are piling in to the Glastir Woodland Creation (GWC) scheme to plant trees and offset their carbon emissions amid reports that local farmers are being outbid by well-heeled investors.
The project aims to see millions of new trees carpeting huge tracts of the Principality, but critics say it is already having unintended consequences.
The Welsh government has launched a number of initiatives offering initial grants of up to £4,500 per hectare to encourage tree planting across the country as it embarks on an ambitious climate commitment to see 86m new trees planted by 2030 – and 360m by 2050.But critics say the policy will damage community life, particularly in more rural areas, where traditional, family-run farms provide employment and local produce.
Blaenavon Farm near Neath, South Wales, is under threat from a ‘green rush’ as entrepreneurs and large companies buy land so they can claim huge government grants
The Welsh government has launched a number of initiatives offering initial grants of up to £4,500 per hectare to encourage tree planting across the country
Farming unions point out it is cheaper for corporations to plant trees in Wales to offset their carbon emissions instead of reducing their own carbon footprint.
Glyn Roberts, president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, said the GWC could have ‘a devastating effect on agriculture and rural life’ and entire Welsh farms were being snapped up ‘almost weekly’.
Recently released figures showed that a growing proportion of GWC money is being used to pay for tree-planting in Wales on land bought by investors from outside.
Others have raised concerns that much of the new planting is non-native conifers which support far less wildlife than native species.
A fourth generation dairy farmer, Richard Hopkins (pictured), 57
Farming Union of Wales head of policy, Dr Nick Fenwick said: ‘Within the past century, the area of woodland in Wales increased threefold… with the vast majority of the increase down to the planting of non-native conifers.
‘The experience over the past century has highlighted the damage that well intentioned policies aimed at increasing woodland areas can have, as large-scale government driven planting on land previously used for livestock production has devastated ecosystems and displaced entire communities.’
Dr Fenwick pointed out that the productivity of land used for farming is significantly higher than that used for conifers and farming employed nearly three times the number of people as forestry.
‘The history and the figures therefore raise grave concerns about what is happening.
‘That said, Welsh farmers are actually keen to plant woodland and also manage the existing 75,700 hectares of woodland that they already have…but they face major obstacles to doing this and the market and policies seems to currently favour outside investors buying up Welsh land for afforestation to cash in on the growing carbon market.
‘Those purchasing such land invariably have funds at their disposal that allow them to outbid local farmers and residents. The result is the loss of farmland and habitat; the movement of Welsh land ownership to individuals and companies based outside Wales; the displacement of Welsh families from the land they have farmed for generations; stark falls in the contribution of land and families to local economies and communities; and the diversion of income derived from carbon credits and other schemes to people and companies from outside Wales.’
Critics say the policy will damage community life, particularly in more rural areas, where traditional, family-run farms provide employment and local produce
There are also concerns the widespread afforestation will threaten the Welsh language, which is more prevalent in rural areas, and wildlife because most of the new trees are non-native conifers.
Richard Hopkins, a fourth generation farmer at Blaenavon Farm near Neath, South Wales, told how he lost the 250-acre family holding when his father died last year.
Mr Hopkins, 57, said: ‘The estate was divided between eight or nine beneficiaries, including myself, and the executors of my father’s will decided to sell the farm to an entrepreneur for just £550,000, including the five-bed farmhouse and a huge range of outbuildings.’
The buyer, who is based in Cornwall, immediately split the farm up, selling off the house and outbuildings and about six acres to another buyer for close to the price he paid for the whole lot.’
He then sold off a few more acres to a neighbouring farmer and called in a tree-planting and management company – Tillhill – to plant the rest of the land up with trees.
‘They’re not even planting native species. They’re going to seed the land with conifer seeds they’re importing from Norway this winter.
‘The farm will be unrecognisable in a year or two’s time because these conifers are very fast-growing.’
It breaks my heart. This land supported so much wildlife in the hedges and fields when we had cattle and sheep grazing. We were producing 70 gallons of milk every day and had 900 sheep out there.
‘Now it’s going to be full of conifers that support little or no wildlife – unlike broad leaf trees – because they don’t produce berries or nuts or anything that attracts it. It will be dark and damp with pine needles on the ground. It will feel dead.
The scheme forwards an annual maintenance payment of £30-60 per hectare, plus an annual ‘premium’ payment of £350 per hectare if the new woodland is taken out of agricultural production, according to the Welsh Government
‘I’m sure the Welsh government’s intentions were good, but, as often happens with good intentions, people see an opportunity to exploit the policy and make a lot of money out of it.’
Also concerned is Janet Finch-Saunders, Tory MS Aberconwy in the Welsh Assembly.
She said: ‘Whilst I am all for tree planting, we must take steps to ensure that the right tree is planted in the right place. Unfortunately, what we are already seeing are farms, usually in Welsh speaking communities, being bought up to be plastered with trees as a means of large multinational organisations balancing their carbon books.
‘This is why I have called on the Welsh Government to establish a Just Transition Commission to ensure the burden of decarbonisation does not fall unequally on our rural communities and have a negative impact on the historically thriving Welsh language in rural Wales. If the devolved Government does not act soon it could be too late to turn the tide which is moving against individuals and families who want to rent or own land to actually farm.
‘I am hearted that there now seems to be cross-party will to achieve action. You can be sure that I will do my utmost to champion food security and food production, and therefore try to stop farmers and farming communities from being felled by trees.’
A Welsh government spokesperson said: ‘The Glastir capital payment is a one off payment of £1,600-4,500 per hectare to pay for the planting of the trees. The amount is based on the type of woodland planted, including the number of trees planted and the type of trees.’
In addition, the scheme forwards an annual maintenance payment of £30-60 per hectare, plus an annual ‘premium’ payment of £350 per hectare if the new woodland is taken out of agricultural production, the spokesperson said, adding:
‘In total the scheme has funded over 1,500 hectares of woodland creation. Applications for a possible further 3,900 hectares of woodland have been offered contracts, but plans for these woodlands are still undergoing the verification process to check woodland plans meet the UK Forestry Standard.
‘The vast majority of projects funded are by Welsh farmers. A small number of projects are managed by individuals or organisations registered outside of Wales, but funding for tree planting must be spent on woodland creation in Wales.
‘Earlier this year, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change conducted a deep dive exercise to identify actions to remove barriers toward tree planting. A working group has since been established to consider models to attract investment in woodland creation, without disrupting existing communities and patterns of landownership.’
Farmers pushed out in ‘green rush’
Three years ago, Farmer John Thomas hoped the new owners of the farm he’d lived and worked on for nearly 70 years would safeguard it for future generations, he told the BBC.
But Frongoch Farm in Carmarthenshire’s Cothi Valley was resold earlier this year to a multi-national investment company called Foresight Group, based at the Shard in London.
At auction, the guide price was exceeded and the farm, together with another local holding, sold for more than £2m.
Mr Thomas said it was ‘breaking my heart’ to see his childhood home become one of many sold to ‘huge, faceless companies in England’ for planting trees.
‘I feel very sad about it – I feel quite angry actually,’ he said.
‘It shouldn’t be allowed to happen on such a big scale. It’s shameful that they should be allowed to do this.
‘They’re sacrificing Welsh land for the benefit of the rich in England.’
Farmer John Thomas hoped the new owners of the farm he’d lived and worked on for nearly 70 years would safeguard it for future generations
The Foresight Group owns four farms in Wales – Frongoch, Brynglas, Esgair Hir and Banc – and confirmed to the BBC that it intended to use the land for afforestation.
The company said: ‘Sustainability is central to Foresight’s business and we believe it is right to invest responsibly in forestry sites around the UK.
‘A key focus of our approach is to ensure that any land use change is done in as sensitive way as possible. As part of any new scheme, we always engage and consult with local communities.’
The company added it targeted less fertile land for afforestation projects and confirmed it intended to apply for Welsh government grants.
Susan Price, who lives on a farm near Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, told the BBC there were three farms in the area which had been recently sold to companies from outside Wales to plant trees.
She said taking fertile land out of food production into forestry was harmful for the local agricultural industry and damaged the local culture and language.
‘I feel quite bitter because it’s part of our heritage,’ added Ms Price.
Susan Price, who lives on a farm near Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, told the BBC there were three farms in the area which had been recently sold to companies from outside Wales to plant trees
‘When our livelihoods are taken away from us, then our heritage and our communities and our language disappear and I think it’s very sad.
She said large companies bought land as investment, ‘outpricing local families’, and the Welsh government was ‘making it so easy for them’ through its grant system.
‘I don’t suppose you can blame them – it’s here for them on a plate and they’re going to take it up, but unfortunately, we have to lose things because of it,’ she said.
The Welsh government added a formal consultation on the National Forest scheme would be launched shortly to engage with local communities and farmers.