The Welsh government aims to plant 86 million trees across the country by 2030 – an admirable goal, but so far efforts have mainly succeeded in stoking resentment in the farming community. So why is planting proving so contentious?

GEED up by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Welsh government is desperately trying to plant 86 million new trees by the end of 2030 – and a ‘national forest’ to boot! But John Davies, president of the National Farming Union in Wales (NFU Cymru) has said rural farming communities in Wales could be “decimated” if blanket afforestation is allowed. Some local campaigners appear no less convinced that perceived plans to ‘blanket’ plant trees across Wales will destroy farming communities. 

Strong stuff, but when you look at the statistics you can see why these organisations and communities are enraged. The implications for farming communities through planting the new woodland ordered for Wales at the behest of the climate-change cheerleaders on the UK’s CCC are truly staggering. According to NFU Cymru, it would mean the complete afforestation of 3,750 Welsh family farms – one quarter of the total number, with an average size of just 48 ha. 

In January 2022, Sky News highlighted concerns coming from rural communities, including a Carmarthenshire village. The programme focused on the number of Welsh farms already sold to large-scale investment firms which plan to create woodland to offset carbon emissions.


Forestry Journal: On the approach to Snowdon in North Wales – a view looking westwards from the Snowdon Ranger Path.On the approach to Snowdon in North Wales – a view looking westwards from the Snowdon Ranger Path. (Image: FJ)

No-one in their right mind could fail to see that planting up such a huge proportion of farmed land with trees will have a big impact on the way of life of thousands of rural families, both farming and non-farming. In a country-wide context, the UK government clearly expects farmers to become foresters and Sir William Worsley, chair of the Forestry Commission, indicated as much when he said “it’s about persuading sheep farmers to become foresters” in May 2021. That’s all very well, but a lot more than persuasion or even coercion is clearly required. 

The Woodland Trust says farmers tell them how they are fazed by forestry procedures and the associated lingo. Helen Chesshire, lead farming advocate for the Woodland Trust, told Farmers Weekly: “Anecdotally, [English] farmers tell us they are being put off by the language and process [around forestry and tree planting].”

Without wishing to insult the intelligence of Welsh farmers, there is no good reason not to suspect the same sort of confusion is prevalent in Wales. And with the additional fear of penalisation very much on the agenda after what happened to the farmer in Builth Wells, who was stung with a £15,000 fine for allegedly placing a couple of fence posts a few centimetres from where they were supposed to be sited.

So why should I be so interested in something so many miles away from my home turf?

Five decades ago I embarked on a degree in Agricultural Botany at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, as the institution was then called. During the 1960s you didn’t come out of ‘coll’ at ‘Aber’ with a good honours degree in ‘Agri Bot’ without being something of an expert on upland pasture agronomy. 

I remember our first visit into the hills of Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion), armed with quadrats to assess grass sward composition, bent double in driving rain to assess the amount of bent and fescue grasses. Goronwy, our lecturer and acknowledged expert in upland pasture agronomy, barked out instructions in Welsh, even though only one quarter (if that) of the class were Welsh speakers. 

However, I got to love those Welsh hill farms and all they stood for. I recall looking up and seeing the farmer with a wry smile on his face at our predicament – even his sheepdog was laughing. However, here was a man out on the hills in all weathers, not making a mint for his toil, but ensuring my old dad back in London had his woollen socks in winter and my mum could make her mutton stew. 

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A Carmarthenshire villager called Sheila Davies, who featured in the Sky News programme, said: “Those fields – that’s generations of hard work to produce grassland like that and to see it destroyed just for an investment company being able to plant trees is incredibly upsetting.” 

And all thanks to bunch of bureaucrats, guided by an English peer of the realm, who apparently want to take all this grassland and livestock away. Not any old peer, but one who cattle farmers over 50 years of age will be well acquainted with. Because Lord Deben (AKA John Selwyn Gummer), chair of the CCC, was minister in charge when BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow disease) reared its head in 1986. 

At the time, I was editing a series of special supplements for an international agricultural magazine based in Surrey. The June supplement, as I recall, was always ‘Animal Breeding’, enthusiastically supported by many British breed societies, with the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society, Welsh Black Cattle Society and Sussex Cattle Society springing to mind. They were keen to export live animals for breeding purposes, but when BSE broke, the whole thing collapsed, with British beef, alive or dead, treated like the plague around the world. You can imagine how English livestock farmers would feel at the prospect of losing their livelihood due to the deliberations of a peer of the realm, especially one with that particular provenance, so how their Welsh counterparts feel I dare not think.

There’s a range of reasons for establishing new woodland and forest – supply of timber, enhancing biodiversity and providing opportunities for education and leisure – although the reason given for plans which could turn rural Wales inside out is purely carbon capture and sequestration to mitigate climate warming. 

The implication is that the carbon footprint of the average Welsh family farm, covering 48 hectares, which may or may not support a dairy herd (average size 97 for all farms in Wales), a beef herd (average size 23 for all farms in Wales) and a flock of sheep (average size 670 for all farms in Wales), is considered by climate change cheerleaders as far too large. So it has to go, the pasture, the livestock and the way of life.


By the beginning of 2022, at least 20 Welsh farms had already been sold for afforestation to large investment companies from outside Wales to sell carbon credits to clients who want to offset carbon emissions. Sky News focused on one farm in Carmarthenshire which was snatched away from a local family who wanted to purchase the land to produce food, and told how its sale to a London-based company subsequently caused a lot of local resentment about the wider implications for their community and culture. 

Frongoch Farm in the Carmarthenshire village of Cwrt-y-Cadno was sold in 2022 to Foresight Group – a multi-billion-pound private equity firm with headquarters at the Shard in London with plans to plant thousands of trees across the valley. 
Local resident John Llewellyn, who led a group fighting the plans, said the community is fearful the afforestation will be largely made up of conifers, which they claim could damage soil and have a negative impact on the landscape. He said: “This area is threatened by a slow, black blanket of fir trees. Our concern is an afforestation proposal has been agreed and a non-native company, with a non-native adviser and a non-native agent, is coming in to plant trees which we think are the wrong trees in the wrong place and for the wrong reason.” 

He said the locals are not against tree planting per se, but they need to get the right trees in the right place and for the right reason, adding: “What we’re looking at is the wrong trees for ecological and environmental purposes. It will pose a threat to biodiversity, to habitat and the environment.”

Foresters will almost certainly disagree with this description of conifers and softwood timber plantations, but no one could deny this kind of investment on a large scale, from outside of Wales, could run the risk of destroying communities in rural counties such as Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, among the bedrocks of Welsh language and culture. 

This is unequivocally the view of NFU Cymru president John Davies, who told the press: “There is a great deal of concern, because family farms are the backbone of our rural communities in Wales and if you see this happening, that removes those families from those areas, and it removes those job opportunities for 30, 40 years.

“What we want to see is the forestry approach integrated into farming here. This isn’t an option of trees good, cows bad. This is about fully integrating our woodland approach into our agriculture going forward. If you’re seeing a monoculture approach to this and blanket afforestation, that’s a fundamental change and that’s not what we’re looking for in Wales. It’s decimation of that community, isn’t it?” 

On September 1, 2022, the Welsh government announced £32 million of funding for farmers and landowners in Wales towards achieving the 86 million tree-planting target by 2030. The announcement contained two new schemes: the Small Grants Woodland Creation Grant and the Woodland Creation Grant.

NFU Cymru gave a detailed response, but for me the most telling part was when it said: “Many farmers are receptive to the notion of increasing tree cover at an appropriate scale on areas they identify as their less productive land.”

That appears to be the crux of the problem in Wales, because the statement clearly doesn’t include the prospect of outsiders buying up entire farms comprising agriculturally productive land to plant trees, irrespective of whether they are conifers.


Forestry Journal: Phytophthora pluvialis is a relatively new tree disease problem but there are already at least 17 confirmed outbreaks of the pathogen and disease across Wales. Phytophthora pluvialis is a relatively new tree disease problem but there are already at least 17 confirmed outbreaks of the pathogen and disease across Wales. (Image: FJ)

All that said, the situation with regard to afforestation and its alleged impact on productive farming is not as simple as it first seems, because there are several other factors which will impact it in one way or another.

First is the ongoing degradation of Welsh farmland by bracken and bramble. The former is by far the most pernicious and problematic on multiple fronts, including harbourage of disease-carrying sheep ticks which pose dangers for both man and livestock.

Bracken is not just a problem for Wales. It is estimated to cover two million ha, representing eight per cent of the land area of the UK, while encroaching at rates of one–three per cent per annum. A conservative estimate of bracken-infested land in Wales is 100,000 ha. Prospects for long-term sustainable control are currently not good, due to regulations which have increasingly restricted the use of the most appropriate application techniques, as well as ongoing concerns about the safety of asulam, currently the most effective, target-specific herbicide approved and available for bracken control. 

Subscribers in south-west Wales have told Forestry Journal how the considerable land area now infested with bracken, but also bramble, is ripe for planting with trees. Both bracken and trees require good soil and the presence of thriving bracken is a good indicator of soils that would be successful for tree planting, establishment and growth, although weed management is often required either pre- or post-planting.

Not all land currently covered with bracken will be suitable for planting trees, but planting conifers on the 100,000 ha of bracken-covered land in Wales would require 250 million trees, which is more than enough to satisfy the Welsh government’s target of 86 million by 2030.

Last year, one of our contacts in Wales described how “it rankles when you see prime agricultural land being covered with solar panels”. Some progress appears to have been made since, with new guidance issued to all chief planning officers in Wales, stating the Department for Climate Change will object to solar development on BMV land (Best and Most Versatile Land – Grade 1, 2 and 3a land) unless “other significant material considerations” outweigh the need to protect it.

Forestry Journal: Bracken Bracken

The transitory UK government led by Liz Truss was planning to ban solar farms with a redefinition of land categories and expansion of the definition of prime farmland to achieve the aim. It argued that solar panels established on farmland would impede a programme of growth and the boosting of food production. With that administration now in the political archives, it’s anyone’s guess if this will go ahead. Of course that’s for England, not Wales, but it does mean extra pressure on tree planting, which may now be pushed to the bottom of the pile after food production and solar energy. Indeed, forestry’s industry leaders appear to be discounting the threat from solar-panel establishment in their quest to plant more trees and establish plantation forest and semi-natural woodlands. 

They will ignore this threat at their peril.


Whatever your views on planting trees on farmland in Wales, we should spare a thought for the money men in the City of London and elsewhere, salivating at the thought of all those ‘fir’ trees sequestering carbon and cash over the next 50 years or more, because if they don’t get well-informed advice on exactly what species to plant they might end up sequestering the square root of diddly squat. 

Japanese larch has been off the menu since 2009, when the Phytophthora ramorum pathogen caused a disease pandemic which rages to this day. There were still plenty of commercial softwood conifer species available to plant, but recent pest and disease events have put at least three of these on the at-risk list. 

Phytophthora pluvialis, which apparently has the same terminal outcome as P. ramorum for susceptible conifer species, was found in Cornwall almost one year ago and since then has spread like a rash. At least 17 outbreaks have now been reported right across Wales, with western hemlock and Douglas fir the commercial conifers succumbing so far.

If I were a city gent ready to plough millions of pounds into planting a 50-year rotation, I would want to know the prognosis for these conifer species and any others considered to be at risk from infection.

Forestry Journal: Ips typographus Ips typographus

I would also be keeping my eye on Ips typographus and the way this deadly spruce bark beetle pest is motoring along the M4 in the direction of Wales. The Forestry Commission has already placed question marks over the longer-term planting of Norway spruce in those areas of southern England currently affected by and considered at risk from this insect pest. Norway spruce is a moisture-loving species with a preponderance of plantings traditionally made along the moist, maritime flank of the British Isles.


Almost one year after the story broke, ITV picked it up and ran with it, during the first week of January 2023. The participants appear to have realised the sensitivity of the situation, with those interviewed clearly choosing their words very carefully. Despite the Welsh government apparently being right behind the tree-planting and woodland-creation targets for Wales, Julie James MS, the Welsh government’s Climate Change Minister, said that it wants “the right tree in the right place” and doesn’t want trees planted on “good-quality farmland”, although farming unions in Wales say this is already happening.

The programme highlighted the Welsh government’s ‘Families First’ programme, and it could be argued that large out-of-country companies buying up land to grow trees flies directly in the face of locals trying to secure land to farm and raise a family.  

Anthony Geddes, Confor manager for Wales, told the programme how they could achieve good-quality forestry without planting on productive agricultural land, citing the bracken land available.


Forestry Journal: The Dexter breed of cattle originates in south-west Ireland, but apparently responds well to the conditions experienced in Wales.The Dexter breed of cattle originates in south-west Ireland, but apparently responds well to the conditions experienced in Wales. (Image: FJ)

Whatever happens to tree planting across the mainland UK, clear differences are already developing between constituent nations. Scotland is making great strides with new tree planting, but appears at risk of being blown off course – and literally so – by inclement weather. The most recent extreme weather event was Storm Arwen (24–29 November 2021) with revised Forest Research figures showing 8,781 ha of trees brought down by the storm, not far short of the 10,400 ha of new tree planting documented in Forestry Facts & Figures 2022. Ironically, the UK Storm Centre at the UK Met Office assigned a Welsh name to this particular extreme weather event.

England’s new tree-planting programme is going nowhere fast and the government’s target is already out of sight. The loss of 3,350 ha in England at the hands of Storm Arwen exceeds by a mile the 2,300 ha of new woodland planted across England during the latest (2021–2022) period and indicates a retreat rather than advancement in forest cover.

Wales, meanwhile, appears to be in danger of selling off the ‘family silver’ to achieve the position where CCC dictates it should be by 2030.

Author’s Note:
Contrary to rumours circulating in Wales, CCC is not an abbreviation for ‘Cover Cymru with Chestnut’, and NRW does not mean ‘Not Really Working’.