'Save our valley': Villagers in Cwrt-y-Cadno fighting proposals to plant trees on agricultural land
This time last year, tenant farmers Ian O'Connor and his wife Rhiannon were hoping to buy their first farm together in Cwrt-y-Cadno. Born and brought up in the heart of the Cothi Valley, they have a strong attachment to the area. The farm next door, Frongoch, was up for sale. They had two small boys and were looking to raise their young family there.
But they were outbid. Not by other farmers, but by an investor company called Foresight Ltd, which is based in the centre of London. They purchased the land with the intention of planting trees there and "offsetting" carbon emissions.
When the local community at Cwrt-y-Cadno discovered these proposals, there was widespread opposition. For generations it has been sheep farming country. And local farmers were dismayed that prime agricultural land was being taken to plant non-native conifer trees.
For their part, Foresight Ltd say they began to engage with people living near Cwrt-y-Cadno from the beginning. They told me: "A fundamental part of Foresight’s approach to forestry is to listen to and work closely with the local community. We’ve been doing this at Frongoch for the past few months, adjusting our plans to try to accommodate key concerns – for example, we have confirmed that we will not be planting any trees in the valley basin."
As last year wore on, I was told by farmers across Wales about more land that was being bought up by big companies, such as major UK airlines, to plant thousands of trees and offset their carbon emissions.
But the turning point in Cwrt-y-Cadno came three weeks ago, when a petition was launched by the local community to "save the valley". As I write, it has nearly sixty thousand signatures and lobbies Foresight Ltd to change their plans.
I met those villagers who started that petition at the historic Cwrt Methodist Chapel in the middle of the tiny rural hamlet. They were stood outside a building visited by former US President Jimmy Carter, and were looking down a valley labelled an "ancient area of exceptional beauty". They spoke of how they did not want to see their community "irreversibly destroyed". They acknowledge that there is a need to plant more trees, and that Wales must play its part in the global effort to tackle climate change. But they also spoke of how they did not want to see young people displaced off the land, and forced to leave the area in order to find futures they can afford.
I then joined Ian O'Connor and his wife Rhiannon, who now have a third child - a baby boy born last month. In the middle of lambing, they told me about their disappointment that they could not buy Frongoch Farm. Their biggest fear is that they will never be able to purchase a farm in Carmarthenshire and rear their three little boys close to home. But they say that Foresight Ltd have worked with them during the process and have no criticism of the company itself. Their concerns rest with Welsh Government policy. The Welsh Government has a target of seeing 86 million trees planted across Wales over the next nine years. Public money is available through its Glastir scheme to anyone wishing to plant trees on their land. Ian and Rhiannon believe that the Welsh Government is making it "enticing" for firms to hunt for farms in Wales.
Yesterday, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters, told ITV Cymru Wales that "the threat of climate change hasn't gone away. Just because we are three months on from COP people seem to think that we are out of the woods and we are not. In order to reach those targets of getting to net zero we have to do things differently, and one of the things that we have to do - according to the independent UK Climate Change Commission - is to change about 10% of the land we use in Wales away from sheep farming and towards planting mixed woodlands."
When tackled about whether Welsh Government policy and funding makes it attractive for investors to buy up land here, Mr Waters said: "there's also a role for other companies to come in and put that money to use in Wales. Because we will benefit from the carbon sequestration, we will benefit from the biodiversity, we will benefit from the timber that is created to create Welsh jobs and Welsh homes."
But the National Farmers Union in Wales (NFU Cymru) does not believe we have got that balance between forestry and farming right yet. The director of NFU Cymru, John Mercer, lives in Cwrt-y-Cadno and his family roots run deep there. I asked him whether we needed to give more farmland up in Wales to tree planting. He says that farmers are trying to do more, but want to integrate trees on parts of the farm where they cannot produce food. His argument is that the UK is just 60% self-sufficient in food, and his worry is that if this drops further, we will have to import more food from countries with lower climate change targets than British farmers. The NFU has an ambition to be carbon net zero by 2040.
This is far from just about farming, however. Environmental organisations have also lent their voices to the idea that the plan for Cwrt-y-Cadno is a controversial one. Clive Roberts from the West Wales Rivers Trust is an advocate for biodiversity in the Cothi Valley. He says that the River Cothi near Cwrt-y-Cadno is one of the few places left in Wales where salmon and sewin successfully spawn. He says that scientific evidence shows that planting too many conifer trees in a certain area can acidify waterways and kill off species of fish.
The row over 265 acres in Cwrt-y-Cadno will undoubtedly rumble on though. Foresight Ltd say that their "draft scheme for Frongoch has been sensitively designed to incorporate a diverse mix of tree species, to include open spaces for natural habitat, and to deliver both environmental benefits and a significant improvement in biodiversity levels. We recognise that this is a special valley and are working hard to ensure that our plans for it will ensure it remains so.”
Local people are working hard to protect that too. Because they say once it's gone, it's gone forever.