Some reflections on the recent Institute of Welsh Affairs woodland creation conference
On the surface this conference appeared a cacophony of vested interests and established agendas and not much evidence of a lot of listening. Into this the Minister John Griffiths somewhat bravely stepped, challenging us all with an ambitious target to force us to think beyond current orthodoxies and agendas. Despite the noise I see encouraging signs of possible ways forward, especially with the farming sector. For example, there seems some consensus around potential for benefits from better integration of farming and woodland, on loosening the restrictions implied in the current Planting Opportunities Map and on options for utilization of acid grassland.
The farming representatives, though cautious and sceptical, say the sector is interested in new sources of income and want to avoid grant dependency; they are interested in managing their land to provide common public benefits – ecosystem services– but need an effective payment mechanism; they are open to options for utilization of acid grassland but without being told what to do. They would support tree planting that enhances the core food producing business rather than supplanting it. There was an interesting comment from one delegate that the next generation of farmers are actively seeking new income streams and wider purposes for farming. The need for freely available and farming-friendly information and advice came over strongly to me as well as the continued presentation of practical and relevant evidence.
I think this all gives us plenty of smaller scale planting options to work on. The challenge is ingrained disbelief. Small scale planting is not conceived as important in terms of direct benefits or able to achieve any outcomes on a significant scale. We’ll keep banging on about this. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary; that planting for shelter, shade, for on-farm consumption of wood chip and firewood, and for water management can all have significant farm business benefits. A general and widespread increase in tree cover across the Welsh landscape would be a dramatic and substantial outcome. There is little understanding of wood pasture and agro-forestry systems and that only 20% tree cover is required to achieve woodland that counts functionally and statistically.
Much of the forest industry don’t want to emerge from their conifer plantation box and are marginalising themselves from the wider woodland expansion agenda. Whilst they have a desire to create more plantations for timber production they don’t seem to be able to do anything to achieve this or connect with the investors who are interested in land purchase. Despite acknowledging the wider benefits derived from forestry the language of “unproductive woods” and “purposeless planting” used continues to be dismissive and disparaging of other objectives.
There was much mention of the potential for woodland creation on the low productivity and low biodiversity value acid grassland with all sectors seeming to agree there is some potential here, but an absence of any clarity or agreement of where exactly. The extensive red zoning on the Wales Planting Opportunities Map was frequently identified as a significant and over-extensive impediment, with extensive “historic landscape” zoning particularly criticised as unsupportable. FCW (Forestry Commission Wales) have confirmed that a modified map and new guidance will shortly be issued converting much of the red zoning to the amber “subject to consultation” category and emphasizing that the map is for guidance only. CCW (Countryside Council for Wales) remains concerned that biodiversity priorities are not being properly understood or effectively communicated.
One disappointing note was that there was virtually no mention of the views or wishes of the public or of public engagement. There was one reference to the strong public concern for the forests in England but this was developed as an opportunity for forestry professionals to lecture the public rather than to listen.
There was a useful reminder from Jon Owen Jones, Forestry Commissioner for Wales, that woodland expansion is not an end in itself and that carbon reduction and mitigation is driving purpose for the Welsh Government. Again though the general belief that only large scale planting can achieve this was apparent. I think this is worth challenging – individual open grown trees can store impressive quantities of carbon.
All in all a very interesting and timely conference. I remain convinced the Welsh Government’s target is both desirable and achievable. A large part can be achieved by farming innovation; there is a contribution needed from larger mixed planting on those acid grasslands, and the innovation in forestry that has lead to the Woodland Carbon Code – the first established mechanism for legitimately paying land managers for an “ecosystem service” – deserves wider appreciation.
Jerry Langford, Director Coed Cadw (Woodland Trust Wales)