Tackling climate change and biodiversity decline are the most important challenges of our age. Whilst solutions need to be implemented urgently, however, the impact on community and culture cannot be disregarded. Nor should attempts to solve these problems generate negative and unintended consequences.
Wales is becoming a case study for land use change designed to capture carbon and increase biodiversity. In most cases that involves tree planting which has become the panacea for politicians keen to be seen to be answering voters’ increasing concerns about the environment. That political debate can become ludicrous, for instance the tree planting bidding war in the last UK General Election which ended with the Conservatives practically pledging to plant more trees than there is room for on the planet.
Whilst we can laugh at that sort of slapstick politics it actually leaves a lasting impression on the public and political conscience that the more trees that are planted the better, regardless of what tree or where. That impression is a very dangerous one as students of land use and forestry can attest. The Caithness flow country is an extraordinary peatland landscape which stores 400 million tonnes of carbon, more than twice as much as the carbon stored in all Britain’s woodland. Yet, in the second half of the 20th century, thousands of acres of the flows were planted with non-native conifers as governments sent a message through the tax system that any tree planting was good. The damage was immense and organisations like the RSPB have had to commit huge resources to restoring the flow country and protecting the peat.
There are well-founded concerns that the current drive to increase the amount of woodland might similarly encourage ill-considered projects and, in particular, questions are being asked about the Welsh Government’s approach. It is not responsible for the creation of a market which allows landowners to ‘sell’ the carbon they store to corporations and individuals who wish to offset their carbon emissions, which is the main driver for land use change across Wales and the UK as a whole. The Welsh Government has, however, started buying farmland itself for the purpose of tree planting. When the Alliance submitted a Freedom of Information request it revealed that the Welsh Government has quietly spent £6 million buying land with taxpayers' money. Most worryingly much of this land is not marginal or uneconomic, but productive farmland. This is a policy that threatens the heritage, culture and even language of fragile rural communities.
We fully understand, and support, tree planting and natural regeneration to address the climate crisis, but trees need to be part of a working landscape and by growing the right tree in the right place woodland creation must work in harmony with food production. The challenge of tackling biodiversity and the climate change crisis is best met by supporting regenerative farming and woodland creation within working landscapes.
Countryside Alliance Wales has launched a petition calling on the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to stop purchasing productive farmland for tree planting. If you live in Wales please sign it and help us put this critical issue on the political agenda.