Proposed changes to subsidy support for Welsh farmers have been met by widespread protests in recent months, with much ire around tree-planting targets. However, it’s a complicated, multi-faceted issue. 

WHEN it comes to tree planting, conventional wisdom has long been that there is nowhere in the UK that it is more controversial than in Wales. Recent protests have only cemented this opinion – but is that entirely fair?

Making the case for the defence are farmers on the ground, who have taken part in widely publicised, grassroots-led demonstrations over proposed changes to subsidy support post-Brexit. Under the draft Sustainable Farming Scheme, farmers would have to increase tree cover to 10 per cent of their plantable land by 2030 or lose access to public cash. While many foresters have cautiously welcomed the proposal, it has not gone down well in all quarters. 

Thousands of farmers have joined nationwide protests, culminating in several rallies outside the Welsh Senedd, which were supported by the likes of prime minister Rishi Sunak and TV presenter-turned-farmer Jeremy Clarkson. 

Protesters cheered, waved Welsh flags and held placards in Welsh and English reading: “No Farmers, No Food”.

So what’s driving those demonstrations? 

Media reports – including from Forestry Journal – have focused on concerns over the tree-planting element of the SFS. However, woodland estate manager Huw Morris, who comes from a farming family in Powys, said it wasn’t fair to single out the tree-planting target as the main reason behind the protests. 

Forestry Journal: Thousands of farmers joined recent protests Thousands of farmers joined recent protests (Image: PA)

He said: “The press has picked up on the tree aspect of the protests, and, yes, it’s an issue, but it’s one small issue among many things. 

“There are problems around bovine tuberculosis (TB) and the refusal to cull badgers, unlike in England. Another part of it is the Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) and the Welsh government throwing a random blanket and declaring the whole country an NVZ. But it’s the same as forestry; we have to work with the weather, and shouldn’t be restricted by dates. 

“Farmers are not against planting trees. On our own farm, we have planted just over 200 metres of hedging, which was not grant funded.” 

Huw went on to outline how his parents had taken the decision not to sign up to the SFS on their own farm because it is “completely unworkable”. 

“Farmers and foresters have enough enemies out there beyond our industries, who basically want somewhere pretty to take their dog for a walk,” he added. “We need to stick together, and not be pitted against one another. Singling out tree planting is an easy way to demonise farmers. We need to balance the message because it’s not really what the protests are about.

“When it comes to the trees, they won’t be planted for timber. So it’s a short-term thing. 

“We feel our rural votes our worthless because we don’t live in the right area and are  being ignored by urban-based politicians. If this comes into effect, there will be food shortages fairly quickly. It’s a terrible time for farmers in Wales – and beyond. 

“There are so many Natural Resource Wales sites around me that are poorly managed and being left to rot. Until the Welsh government manages its own land properly, what right does it have to tell us how to manage our land?” 

The SFS has been broadly supported by foresters given Wales’ ambitious plans to plant 86 million trees by 2030, albeit they have remained cautious about the enforced target. There has also been criticism of anti-net-zero slogans championed by some protesters.  

In one of the strongest endorsements of the plan yet, Coed Cadw, the Woodland Trust in Wales, said the proposed scheme was an “appropriate use of public funding”.

According to the conservation charity, tree cover on farms in Wales is already at 6–7 per cent, so for many farms, making this up to 10 per cent is a “relatively modest requirement”.

“We support the policy to significantly increase tree cover on farms,” said Coed Cadw’s Wales director, Natalie Buttriss. “We think that it is necessary and desirable, for both farming and the public. This is clearly a big change for farmers and we think it is appropriate to use public funding through the Sustainable Farming Scheme to support farmers in making this change.”

Forestry Journal: Wales' new rural affairs secretary Huw Irranca-DaviesWales' new rural affairs secretary Huw Irranca-Davies (Image: Stock)

Natalie added: “We firmly believe that the basic minimum tree cover and habitat requirements in this scheme will help farming, the environment and the population of Wales. We know from working directly with farmers across Wales that many are finding successful ways of working with trees that are good for their farm business and the natural environment as well as the public, whilst complementing quality, sustainable food production. With flexibility and innovation this is all achievable.”

In response to the protests, Wales’ former rural affairs secretary Lesley Griffiths previously admitted changes will be made to the SFS. A public consultation – which sparked much of the revolt – closed last month. At the time of writing, the Welsh Government had not revealed what alterations it would be making to the scheme, but it has been widely hinted that the 10 per cent tree cover target could be among the tweaks. 

In new first minister Vaughan Gething’s cabinet reshuffle, former Defra under-secretary Huw Irranca-Davies was last month named as Wales’ rural affairs secretary. Good luck to him.