Protecting rural Wales: The battle between saving agricultural land and tackling climate change

Companies from England and beyond are purchasing Welsh farms to offset their carbon footprint by planting trees. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

There's a growing concern in parts of rural Wales that our ambitions to cut carbon could be damaging communities.

Currently, 15% of Wales is covered by trees but the Welsh Government has set a target to increase this number to 19% by 2030.

That means planting 86 million trees within the next eight years - roughly 12 million per year. For context, in 2020, less than one million trees were planted throughout Wales.

Research shows that at least a dozen Welsh farms have already been bought by companies from England and beyond for the sole purpose of offsetting their carbon footprint.

Whilst this will help Wales reach its targets to tackle the climate change crisis, it means local farmers are being impacted and Welsh assets are being sold and used for the benefit of others.

Wales This Week explores the issue in more detail on Tuesday (March 22) at 8pm on ITV Cymru Wales.

Ian and Rhiannon O’Connor fear what the future holds for their children in the agricultural industry. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Cwrt y Cadno in west Wales is an area which has already been affected. In the last year, three farms have been sold to Foresight, an investment company based in London.

'The Welsh Government should be looking after local people first'

Ian and Rhiannon O’Connor live and farm on land next door to Frongoch, one of the farms to have been bought.

The couple previously made an offer to purchase Frongoch which had been accepted, but it soon fell through.

Ian explained: "We got very close - our offer was accepted, with the solicitors for a couple of weeks or so. And we had a phone call from the land agent a couple of weeks later to say that unfortunately a higher offer had come in and that it was considerably higher - about 10% more than we had offered. Unfortunately for us, in our position, we couldn’t compete.

Currently, 15% of Wales is covered by trees but the Welsh Government aims to increase this to 19% by 2030. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Ian says it's hard to compete with big businesses, particularly when the Welsh Government is providing grants to those contributing to the creation of more woodlands in Wales.

Local community groups have also raised concerns about the types of trees being planted, with many being non native species which may not benefit local ecosystems.

Farmers like Ian believe the Welsh Government should be prioritising local people and communities first. They fear that if this doesn't happen, valuable agricultural land could be lost for good.

Ian said: "If everybody contributes a little bit we can reach that target together, which means that local people can still be in local farms, keep local communities and local traditions going.

"The Welsh Government should be looking after local people first, before inviting people from further afield in, especially when it comes to Welsh Government money."

Ian has since been able to purchase 30 acres of Frongoch farm from the company Foresight, but still worries about the next generation.

"It’s nice owning 30 acres, but that doesn’t guarantee a future for my children in this industry, if they choose to go that way in life.

"It’s the generation going forward that we want to look after, that will allow our children, if they wish so, to stay in their locality and to make a living. And these days, unfortunately, 30 acres isn’t enough to make a viable living on", he added.

Iwan Parry manages forests on behalf of investors but says Welsh farmers should see this as an "opportunity". Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Iwan Parry is the director of the forestry company Tilhill. He manages forests on behalf of investors and helps them apply for grants.

Iwan says Welsh farmers should see this as an opportunity: "There’s been a lot of bad press recently about developing woodlands in Wales, unjust in my opinion.

"I think there are huge possibilities and great opportunities here in Wales in terms of creating new woodlands and I think those opportunities are for both farmers, land owners and investors. With that it brings green jobs, supports local communities, the Welsh language and everything like that."

When questioned as to why local farmers are not planting trees themselves, Iwan said he "doesn't know what the barriers are in terms of getting farmers to think of woodland as part of their business".

Some farmers like Ifan Davies worry that this way of business is too similar to the case of Tryweryn, which saw the drowning of a Gwynedd valley for a reservoir during the 1960s. The result; an entire community forced to leave the area.

Ifan Davies stresses the importance of maintaining "good agricultural land" before there's none left for food production. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

'We need food security. If we plant this with trees, this good agricultural land, we’ll have nothing left'

Ifan farms just outside Tregaron in Ceredigion. He's an independent county councillor and urges people to think about the impacts longer term.

"We’ve seen farming is becoming harder and harder. Production costs are going up and up because of gas prices and oil prices across the board, but people need to be mindful because where is their food coming from? We need food security. If we plant this with trees, this good agricultural land, we’ll have nothing left."

Ifan highlights that farmers have been doing their bit and planting their own trees, but fears large companies are being enticed into the scheme by Welsh Government incentives.

"Unfortunately there is a policy with the Welsh Government that encourages them to do that. Gives them the money to plant those trees as well.

"To let companies come in and just plant trees on good agricultural land is immoral."

At least a dozen Welsh farms have already been bought by companies from outside Wales, according to research. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Carmarthenshire County Councils have all written to the Welsh Government calling on them to look at the issue once again.

Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters, refused to accept this situation is the same as Tryweryn in the 1960s and is focused on the issue of climate change.

When asked how the idea of a repeated Tryweryn makes him feel, the minister explained: "I don't accept it and it's something I'm very keen to avoid.

"I'm determined to find a way of dealing with climate change, which is the biggest threat to our farming communities by the way, as well as working with them to create a viable future for them to remain there. That's what I'm committed to do and alarmist language doesn't help."

The minister added that unless action is taken now to tackle climate change, then "a metre sea level rise" will be "disastrous for the economy and society of Wales".

He acknowledges that previous obstacles have made it difficult for local farmers, but encourages them to start planting their own trees alongside food production now in order to reach targets.

Wales This Week: The next Tryweryn is on at 8:00pm Tuesday 22 March on ITV Cymru Wales and will be available on our website for catch up.