Video report by ITV Wales' Rural Affairs Correspondent Hannah Thomas
As Rural Affairs Correspondent for ITV Cymru Wales, as you might expect, I tend to get bombarded with stories about our countryside. But none fill my inbox more than stories about the changing use of our landscape, and fears around the future of our food and farming in Wales if agricultural land is bought up for other reasons.
A year ago there were whispers that land was being bought up by big business to plant trees and 'offset' their carbon emissions. They have grown into deafening yells over the past twelve months, and now dominate discussions within the farming industry.
But there are worries too that Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales are adopting a policy of buying up land themselves in order to plant trees. The latter says that "climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the greatest challenges we face, and we have a duty to provide a healthier and more resilient environment for the species and habitats of Wales."
Earlier this year, ministers purchased land at Brownhill near Llangadog in Carmarthenshire, to plant the first of three commemorative woodlands in memory of those who died from coronavirus. That prompted campaign group the Countryside Alliance to submit a Freedom of Information Request on how much farmland the Welsh Government had bought up.
They have now shown those figures exclusively to ITV Cymru Wales, and they reveal that since 2019, more than six million pounds of public money has been spent on purchasing land for woodland creation purposes. That figure includes four million pounds that the Economy Minister Vaughan Gething confirmed had been spent last week buying Gilestone Farm in Talybont-on-Usk to "safeguard the future" of the Green Man music festival.
Nearly four hundred thousand pounds was spent on farmland in Anglesey to plant trees, and 1.4 million pounds on the Brownhill site near Llangadog.
Rachel Evans is the director of the Countryside Alliance in Wales. She lives in Llangadog and has begun a petition today, calling on the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales to stop buying farmland in rural areas.
She says: "We simply cannot stand by and allow prime agricultural land in Wales to disappear. Doing so risks destroying generations of vital farming heritage. Rightly, we are talking more and more about food security and the need for self-dependency, but this will be hampered if there is less land for farming to take place.
"Clearly, there needs to be balance and while tree planting does bring benefits, future projects need to be considered alongside the potential impact on local communities and the ability to produce food here in Wales.
"The Welsh Government have an ambitious aim of planting more and more trees, which may well make for short-term flashy PR, but it’s rural people who are left with the aftermath of tree planting projects that just haven’t been thought through. We urge people living in Wales to sign our petition today."
But the Welsh Government are arguing that the Covid commemorative woodlands "will become a place for people to remember family and friends lost throughout the pandemic. They will be planted with a range of tree species and Natural Resources Wales will continue to work with the local community over the coming months as plans are developed.”
Those plans have sparked outrage in the local community at Llangadog, however. Meetings have been held in the village to find out more, and young farmers in particular are dismayed at the Welsh Government's decision as they struggle to buy land of their own.
Aaron Hughes is a 24 year-old livestock farmer, who still lives with his parents on the family farm - nestled in the Towy Valley. He feels very strongly about land being bought up for non-agricultural purposes.
He says: "The Welsh Government has got money to throw away towards land, but they're not willing to throw money towards agriculture. They can find the money from the taxpayer to plant trees okay though, which Natural Resources Wales will probably take care of."
In defence, Natural Resources Wales say that "all land managers and landowners need to play their part to help achieve an increase in woodland cover. This includes NRW and the Welsh Government Woodland Estate that we manage. While highly beneficial, woodland creation on the Estate is only a small part of the national effort to increase woodland in Wales and would involve a very small proportion of land. We want most woodland expansion in Wales to be via other landowners and managers choosing to create woodland, and we want to work with farmers and communities to do this to ensure that they are at the heart of woodland creation."
This row is likely to rumble on. For a start, local people in Llangadog believe that a commemorative woodland near the noisy and busy A40 is not a suitable location for such a memorial. There is also a feeling that rural Wales is unfairly taking its share of the climate change effort.But the warning about a "code red for humanity" is not going away. So this 'red hot' debate is only likely to intensify...