The politicians vs the farmers? Why relations are under pressure over protecting the Welsh landscape

New Welsh Government laws aimed at reducing pollution from farming are facing a legal challenge - with some in the industry saying their concerns are not being taken on board.

The new water quality regulations, which came into force across Wales on 1 April, pose a "significant threat to the economic viability of Welsh farming", the NFU argue.

Government ministers have argued that difficult decisions have to be made due to the climate emergency.

ITV Wales' Political Editor Adrian Masters and Rural Affairs Correspondent Hannah Thomas explore if people in politics and agriculture are living in different worlds.

  • By Hannah Thomas

Perhaps the farming community would argue that a judicial review into water quality regulations would not be going ahead if talks about new agricultural pollution laws had been constructive.

The farmers’ union NFU Cymru has launched the judicial review process, and it too would say that legal proceedings mean it is restricted in what it can say now.

But more widely, farmers are not welcoming of these fresh regulations.

Like the Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths says, they also tell me that they want to be part of the climate change solution, and they want to look after our environment. But like the Conservatives’ shadow Rural Affairs Minister Samuel Kurtz described, they also use the term ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ very often in describing these laws.

The devil in most things is in the detail, and there are conflicting opinions on the level of pollution farming releases into our rivers.

The farming community has previously told me that agriculture accounts for just 12% of the pollution that ends up in our watercourses. But, the Welsh Government has previously told me that our rivers see three agricultural pollution incidents a week.

Whatever the figures are, farmers are concerned that new laws designed to tackle it, will actually make the problem worse. There is a proposal to stop them spreading slurry during the winter. But their fears are that if we have dry periods then, the weather would have been ideal. If we have a wet summer, all farmers will be forced to empty their slurry at a time when it is more likely to wash into our rivers and streams. 

Roger Lewis said the proposals bring him 'real worry'

One hundred miles away from the Senedd in Cardiff Bay, dairy farmer Roger Lewis from Pembroke said he is very anxious about the proposals.

“By stopping farmers from spreading slurry for three months, that’s going to put pressure on the other nine months. Alongside the fact that they’re bringing a stocking density into the whole regulations, which will mean I actually have to keep less cows and less youngstock. So obviously my bottom line is going to be less, and that’s a real worry.”

Of course, this is not just about farming.

This is also about fishing.

Some of our rivers are seeing incredibly high levels of phosphate, known to halt the growth of animals and plants.

Harry described it as a 'balancing act' between what the consumer wants and what needs to be produced

On the River Usk in Crickhowell, they have not seen a salmon for a very long time.

And it used to be a popular breeding spot for the fish.

Harry Legge Bourke is the chairman of the Usk Fishing Association. I asked him whether farmers were right to say that these laws are disproportionate and over the top.

“It’s a balancing act between what the consumer wants - which is cheap food and which is what we still have to produce as proven by the pandemic. We then also have to produce a clean environment, clean rivers, and clean water for us to drink at the end of the day.”

Our need to eat and our need to tackle climate change is likely to feature heavily in the news agenda over the next few months. The COP26 summit in Glasgow will bring people from all over the world together here in the UK to discuss how we break that ‘code red for humanity’. But before then, there are hopes that Welsh politicians and people in the Welsh countryside can find more common ground when it comes to protecting our landscapes in the future.

  • By Adrian Masters

With the Welsh Government’s new climate change laws about to face a legal challenge, it seems that relations between ministers and those in agriculture are at a low ebb.

Ministers deny there has been any breakdown, citing the countless meetings they hold and farm visits they make. 

In my experience, it is nothing new to hear accusations from farmers and others in the countryside that politicians do not understand them or their needs. 

Similarly politicians often sigh wearily that they not only listen, but pay more attention to agriculture than a simple calculation of its worth to the economy would suggest it requires. 

Boris Johnson visited the Royal Welsh show during the last general election campaign Credit: PA

You only have to see the number of politicians of all parties, and from both Welsh and UK Governments, making the annual trek to the Royal Welsh Show to see how the two worlds intertwine. 

But it is a sign of how high the levels of frustration are that the judicial review has happened. 

In Cardiff Bay, the Conservatives say they are giving voice to that frustration. Samuel Kurtz, the party’s Shadow Rural Affairs Minister told me that the Welsh government needs to listen more. 

Sam Kurtz from the Conservatives said there needs to be a more "Realistic and targeted approach"

"It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut and every pollution incident in the watercourses is a cause for concern, but [it needs] a more targeted and more realistic approach, and something that's not actually going to cause more problems and be more detrimental which the NVZ policy could do by farming by calendar.

"I think that's where the farming community feel like they haven't been listened to, their concerns have not been listened to, and that's causing them great frustration."

Lesley Griffiths said she "disagrees" that the plans are too rigid

The Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths insists that she is listening, but also that something has to be done to tackle the climate change crisis she says Wales is facing.

“Here in Wales we are living in that climate emergency. And of course the agricultural sector by their own admission will say they are part of the solution. I have found in many of the discussions I’ve had with the agricultural sector, particularly with individual farmers, that they very much see themselves as part of the solution and want to work with us.”

Which is very much what those in the agricultural sector said to us but, I suggested to her, they feel that the Welsh Government’s plans are too rigid.

“I disagree. This is something that we have discussed for many years since I first came into portfolio five years ago. I’ve worked very hard with the stakeholders to make sure we listen to what they say and I’ve found our relationship at that level very good.”

Is she willing to change tack to keep that relationship going? 

“You will appreciate that we have legal proceedings so I am restricted in what I can say but my door is always open.”