The village of Cwrt y Cadno sits in a particularly pretty and unspoiled valley in Carmarthenshire, south west Wales. The steep sides of the Mynydd Mallaen plateau rise to the east; the foothills of the Cambrian mountains look down from the other side, and the Cothi river cuts a path between the two.
But in this quiet village a scuffle has broken out over the fate of a tree planting scheme in the area. It’s a fight that may well reveal the folly of mass tree planting in Wales, the side effects of ambitious carbon targets, and the futility of government subsidies.
Large forestry plantations have been a feature of Wales’s landscapes for nearly a hundred years, ever since the Forestry Commission was created in 1919. At the height of its conifer planting in 1975, the Commission acquired a third of a million acres of Welsh land; much of it by compulsory purchase. This conflict in land use between tree planting and sheep grazing has always created tensions in Wales. But in recent years, thanks to carbon offsetting schemes and new government subsidies, tree planting has become fashionable again and more profitable even on high quality land. And Wales is shouldering the burden.
Over the summer, a private equity firm called Foresight – resident for tax purposes in Guernsey and with gleaming offices high up in London’s Shard – began looking at property around Cwrt. It snapped up a local farm called Frongoch, paying a premium on the asking price that took it past the reach of local bidders.
If Cwrt can be said to have a centre, Frongoch is right there, just past the Methodist chapel on the village square. Some of its land runs north up the Allt Goch bank; more lies across the valley floor.
Foresight bought Frongoch to cover the land – and so a substantial part of Cwrt – with trees, for which it will receive a hefty pay-out from the Welsh government as part of the Glastir land management scheme. Foresight is creating the UK’s first forestry-based investment trust, which locals suspect is part of a deal to offset CO2 emissions for some leviathan polluter. As Foresight put it, it’s ‘an opportunity for companies to offset their carbon emissions in tandem with climate change mitigation.’
In their puff to potential investors, Foresight describe their asset as ‘a strategic economic resource, as well as an invaluable asset to be protected for their inherent ecological value.’ People around Cwrt are less convinced about the ecological value of the scheme. Foresight haven’t yet confirmed what kind of trees they want to plant in the area, but Glastir subsidy rules only require 25 per cent of the planting area to be made up of Wales’s native broadleaf woodland.
Native woodland grows slowly, while Scandinavian species like Larch and Sitka Spruce shoot up fast. These non-native species turn the soil acidic and support far less wildlife than native trees. This means that Cwrt is likely to become a thick conifer forest covering the valley floor, taking valuable farmland out of production and turning the area into a dense green desert.
People in and around Cwrt y Cadno are furious about the threat to their village. One of the village’s defenders is the former Lord Mayor of London Sir David Lewis, who lives nearby and is from a local farming family. He and others are raising hell to stop the valley being ruined: ‘We will never ever permit anyone to ruin our village, our places of worship and our valleys by this type of indiscriminate planting.’
At the farm next door to Frongoch you can find John Mercer, director of the National Farmers Union in Wales. While more political in his language than Sir David, he is clear that these are the wrong trees in the wrong place. ‘As farmers, we are strongly resistant to the planting of trees on our best land. The loss of farms for complete afforestation is highly emotive.’ He accepts the importance of increasing tree cover in Wales, but wants to see targeted planting, that complements productive agriculture.
While people in Carmarthenshire are up in arms, the Welsh Labour government down in Cardiff Bay is relaxed about the plans. Planting up Frongoch advances the government’s plans for a National Forest for Wales, where ‘a connected forest ecosystem will extend the length of the country.’ To meet its climate targets, the Welsh government wants to plant 86 million more trees in Wales before 2030.
If this blights Cwrt, it won’t worry Welsh Labour. It has no great love for the countryside, which returns few Labour votes. Labour don’t hold a single seat in mid or west Wales, either in the Senedd or in Westminster. And after the party declared war on farmers by making the whole of Wales a nitrate-vulnerable zone – imposing punitive costs and bureaucracy on farmers – the party is about as popular in rural Carmarthenshire as sheep scab.
No surprise, then, that the Save Cwrt campaign has been taken up enthusiastically by the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru. Plaid’s leader Adam Price has called tree planting by ‘foreign’ investors ‘the agricultural equivalent of the wider second homes crisis.’ He wheeled Plaid’s big guns out to Cwrt last Friday for a meeting in the square. The pressure seems to be paying off: Foresight let it be known before the event that they were re-thinking the Frongoch scheme, and would only plant trees on the hill, rather than the valley floor land.
David Lewis, the former Lord Mayor, doesn’t think Foresight’s promise is worth much: ‘Why would you trust anything they say without proof? They can change their mind anytime or merely defer planting on the valley floor until after things quieten down.’
Instead, it seems the solution could well be political. While Adam Price has complained about ‘foreign’ exploitation of Wales, the Senedd has the ability to solve this problem. Plaid Cymru announced proposals last month to co-operate with Welsh Labour (which just lacks an overall majority in the Senedd) to push through the Welsh government’s legislative agenda. If this collaboration with Labour gives Plaid any influence at all, they should use it to demand two legislative changes that would protect farmland from speculative investment.
Planning laws are devolved to Wales and could easily be tweaked so that planting forestry on agricultural land (above a certain acreage) is treated as a change of use requiring planning consent. Agriculture is devolved to Wales as well, and Glastir subsidies could only be paid to landowners who actively farm their land. Otherwise, Cwrt won’t be the only Welsh village whose residents are swamped with conifers.