Probably the most intensely debated questions at our 2019 BIG Debate during WoodBUILD circled around forestry and land use, and how to move the agenda for a high value forest nation forward in the current system. As part of our series of follow-up interviews on the Big Debate, we invited Jon Travis, Welsh Government; Dominic Driver, Head of Land Stewardship at NRW; and Anthony Geddes, Confor National Manager for Wales to comment on developments in the activities Welsh Government committed to at WoodBUILD 2019.

A National Forest for Wales. What role?

“This is an important journey. It is important to support the first minister in developing the National Forest and I am personally committed to the challenge.”, encouraged Liz Lyon, head of forestry resources policy at Welsh Government, to the captive audience on the question of Wales becoming a high-value Forest Nation. What role does the National Forest play in achieving this vision in your view?

Looking across to Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) from Beddglert forest

“The Forest Nation is an interesting construct. In Wales at least by land use we are a nation of farmers. Upland, lowland, dairy, meat and arable, the question is why doesn’t that also include trees?” asks Anthony Geddes and suggests the aim to be clearly defined: “What do we mean by a forest nation? 38% tree cover as with the rest of Europe, a nation with a highly productive and efficient forest industry or a nation that engages with and socially embraces its forestry resource?”

Anthony Geddes suggests that the National Forest may help us answer those two questions at least to some extent: “It is clear that the current budget and in fact the design of the National Forest Program is not going to deliver an additional 50,000 ha of new forestry but it may prove to be the base for trialling new delivery methods to encourage the uptake of tree planting on farms and encourage the public to become more engaged.”

Jon Travis clarifies the objective of the programme: “The National Forest will improve the condition and connectivity of our ancient woodlands and accelerate the rate of tree planting in Wales. It will not be simply one area of woodland, but span the full length of Wales, with woodland of different types and sizes, connected over time, to create a genuinely national resource.” The project mainly centres around the creation of public assets: “Our focus will be on areas of well-managed, publicly accessible woodlands. We believe this can unlock environmental and economic benefits for the people of Wales and work towards safe-guarding our woodlands and natural heritage as a public asset for future generations and visitors to Wales to enjoy.”

Public engagement is at the heart of the delivery of the National Forest according to Jon Travis: “Earlier this month, Welsh Government ministers launched the start of our engagement period of the National Forest programme. We want to work with farmers, foresters, voluntary organisations, councils, environmental experts and local communities to help us deliver a National Forest which benefits the whole of Wales.”

As with most projects, Covid-19 is impacting on the original schedule. Welsh Government are currently considering how the coronavirus outbreak will affect plans over the next year.

Land use policy and woodland creation

During the BIG Debate, land use policy and woodland creation were particularly discussed in the context of the second round of the Brexit and our Land’ consultation which was about to launch in July 2019. What does the situation look like today and have you seen any changes in policy focus?

“Last summer the Sustainable Farming and our Land (SFaoL) consultation set out proposals designed to address our key challenges of supporting the ongoing sustainable production of food, combating the climate emergency and reversing the loss of biodiversity.” says Jon Travis “The proposals have been drafted within the context of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the Environment (Wales) Act.”

He is positive about the results: “Opportunities for management of existing farm woodland, and opportunities for new planting are throughout the SFaoL proposals. There are opportunities to use trees and agroforestry as part of the toolkit to improve water and air quality, to provide livestock shelter and biosecurity barriers and stabilise soils on slopes, as well as providing habitat and carbon sequestration.”

“We cannot delink delivering improved soil, air and water quality, stronger ecological and biodiversity networks from tree planting. There is an inevitable increase of woodland cover, the questions simply remain what, where and to what end.” confirms Anthony Geddes.

Change is coming. “Fundamentally, we want to see new and existing farm woodlands as an integrated element of the farm business where their environmental and commercial benefits are fully utilised.” says Jon Travis. “The SFaoL consultation responses are still being considered, so it is too soon to comment on future decisions or plans to transition from current to new arrangements. We are also considering how Sustainable Farming Scheme complements the National Forest programme to increase the benefits from Welsh woodlands.”

From an industry perspective, Anthony Geddes comments: “The largest change in policy focus I’m aware of is an understanding that any new scheme needs to be developed through good quality co-design and not through a desk based, one size fits all approach.”

As an example he quotes the Glastir Woodland Creation (GWC) program: “There has already been a substantial change to the GWC. New applications to GWC – 9 must be done through a qualified woodland planner. This step has been taken to improve the quality of the submissions and reduce the amount of money that has been wasted. Previously up to 60% of the funding allocated at application level did not progress to completed schemes due to inappropriate mapping in applications.” He sees further changes coming in the future: “Other policy changes that are being actively suggested are reviewing the 5ha. maximum limit on applications that do not need Environmental Impact Assessment determination. In England and Scotland this is 50ha.”

Jon Travis agrees: “The Welsh Government committed to a process of co-design in SFaoL to explore the more practical implications of proposals with farmers and other land managers in a way not possible in a written consultation. This has recently launched (details at here), although we will need to revise these plans in light of covid-19. The Minister has committed to publishing a White Paper before the end of this Senedd Term, to pave the way for an Agriculture (Wales) Bill in the next Senedd term.”

Biodiversity and Commercial Forests

Referring to the latest plans around a national forest, Liz Lyon stated in June 2019 “There needs to be a balance between commercial and broadleaf forests. It’s an ambitious programme talking about the balance between woodlands around urban margins which compete for biodiversity as well as the much more ambitious programme for commercial woodland so that this could help with our targets as well. We’re waiting for feedback and it will obviously be the minister’s decision about how ambitious they want to be.” What do today’s plans around a national forest look like with regard to biodiversity and productive woodlands?

“The question neatly highlights the challenge we face in the industry.” says Anthony Geddes: “Why does this have to be an either or? The real question is why does this split continue to exist?” For Geddes this is mainly due to a lack of knowledge and appreciation of just what a well-managed woodland can achieve. Confor is working on a paper showing the biodiversity significance of woods in management for productive timber outcomes but according to Anthony more field research and subsequent analysis is required. He adds: “How can we be expected to debate and convince our critics if we have no firm evidence to back up our claims?”

With regard to the National Forest, Anthony Geddes states: “There is no agreed strategy yet beyond that detailed at the soft launch with environment minister Lesley Griffiths. The Welsh government is initially investing £5m into the scheme with an aim to link existing woodland with new forests, parkland and hedges. The scheme is set to help create new, important environments, meet carbon reduction targets, and combat flooding but also support tourism and the wellbeing of citizens across the country. As you can see all things are aspired to and now we need to understand how that translates into policy and program outputs.”

However, for the industry representative it remains unclear “whether timber is a proposed output of the national forest or whether other existing schemes such as Glastir are the preferred lead on that.”

Jon Travis is clear: “We want the National Forest to improve biodiversity and improve the condition of our ancient woodlands, and are providing funding to NRW to undertake a targeted programme this year to begin with this work.” With regard to commercial forestry he adds: “We would also expect there to be areas of productive forestry within the National Forest. The National Forest will play a role in our plans to increase woodland creation in Wales to 2,000 hectares in Wales. However it’s not the only thing that Welsh Government is doing to increase woodland creation in Wales, and will work alongside other policies like the Glastir Woodland Creation scheme.”

Environmental Impact Assessment & Land Use Transfer

WoodBUILD delegates raised concerns about this topic specifically saying that Wales has an incredibly complex legislative planning process and the Environmental Impact Assessment process was a massive barrier in terms of turning land over to forestry (commercial forestry in particular). Liz Lyon confirmed that the government was aware of the issue and had scheduled meetings with NRW to discuss the matter. How have things developed since June last year and what is the referenced longer-term project looking at specifically?

“There is still a need for a clear concise and open scoring method within NRW and Rural Payments Wales.” says Anthony Geddes, Confor Wales. “No applicant to the GWC system currently knows what criteria are used to measure the suitability of their plan.”

“We plan to discuss the scope of work we’re doing on this at a session in April 2020 with members of Natural Resources Wales’ Wales Land Management Forum.” confirms Dominic Driver.

For Anthony Geddes there are additional issues to overcome: “Decarbonisation, the productive potential of the timber and the potential improvement of a change of habitat are not factors in reviewing the suitability of a proposed planting scheme. Put simply, we continue to favour declining, failing and poor habitats without rationalising the opportunity for change. It may not always be appropriate and restoration may be the right answer but to exclude change is to condemn ourselves to look backwards not forwards.”

Jon Travis, Welsh Government describes the challenge of meeting complex ecosystem requirements whilst simplifying the process to do so: “NRW are responsible for ensuring that new woodland creation takes place in a way that maintains and enhances biodiverse and resilient ecosystems, in line with the requirements of the Environment Act. In some cases, an Environmental Statement for new woodland creation is required to ensure that the right species of tree is planted in the right location. These measures are important to ensure that woodland creation enhances our environment rather than damaging it. However, it is important that the process for meeting these requirements are as simple and timely as possible, and NRW and the Welsh Government are in regular discussions about how we can ensure this is the case.”

In Anthony Geddes view: “One objective that must be very much in our political and social focus is achieving the 2,000 ha per annum target. The Woodland for Wales Strategy has been around since 2001 but with far greater aspirations on tree planting. Of the original 100,000 ha target around 65,000 ha remain unplanted. Woodland creation must increase. It can happen in small steps but success in this area will build confidence with the growers and that will secure future plant supply.”

“We’re looking at how to further improve the way we regulate afforestation and the way this interacts with Government grants for afforestation.” says Dominic Driver. “The aim is to provide a more predictable process for applicants for afforestation permissions that is easier and quicker for them to follow, while maintaining confidence that we will protect valuable environmental features from inappropriate tree planting. Our work will include, among other things, looking at how Environmental Impact Assessment for afforestation works.”

An improved Woodland Creation application process

As part of the BIG Debate, Liz Lyon pledged to resolve issues around Glastir applications in the upcoming round in September 2019. What progress has been made in resolving these?

“Earlier this month, the Welsh Government launched a new round of Glastir Woodland Creation scheme, with a budget of £8 million.” states Jon Travis, Welsh Government. He sees a major improvement in the right direction: “This is a fourfold increase on funding from the previous round and a major step towards our commitment of hitting our planting target in Wales. We have also launched another round of Glastir Woodland Restoration with a budget of £2 million to help restock larch woodlands felled due to disease and restore ancient woodland sites. Previous rounds of Glastir Woodland Creation have been well subscribed and the selection process is ongoing.”

Anthony Geddes, Confor Wales is generally positive: “Progress has been slow but favourable. The significant message here is that there were over £20m worth of applications to Glastir 7&8. This is predominantly from farmers. At last we have the evidence to work with National Farmers Union (NFU) and Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) and show them that farmers, as the significant land owners in Wales want to explore the potential for forestry on their farm.”

Further improvements are planned for the future confirms Jon Travis: “Following discussions with the Confederation of Forest Industries (Confor), we have made some changes to the process for this new round. Looking to the future, we will utilise our experience from this round to actively consider how best to ensure the current interest in tree planting from landowners is realised.”

The opportunity for change is huge.” adds Anthony Geddes, “There is a great opportunity to take NRW’s lessons learned from the last eight rounds of GWC and ensure that, whatever replaces it addresses these blockers without creating new problems.” He encourages land owners to engage in the process: “There are £10m going into the March 2020 Glastir Woodland Program – get applying and get it spent. The window closes at midnight 12 June 2020!”

On the path towards a high-value forest nation. Forestry, biodiversity and land use.