Tom Sheldrick is a trainee journalist at Cardiff Journalism School. His own blog can be found here.
In this guest blog, Tom tracks the future of the Welsh woodland.
By Tom Sheldrick
Across the border in England, the Westminster coalition backtracked on its proposal to sell off state-owned forests after a furious public reaction.
Wales has not had to worry about losing its public forests. But they are starting to creak under the pressure of commercial timber production, particularly renewable energy targets.
Fourteen per cent of Wales is covered by woodland. That’s much less than in most European countries. Forestry is a devolved power and 38 per cent of that woodland, or 125,000 hectares, is publicly-owned.
Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones announced in the Senedd on February 1 that the assembly government has no intention of selling off its forestry estate.
There are plans, though, to hand over small blocks to community groups, and buy woodland more suitable for commercial use and public recreation elsewhere. Terry O’Keefe, Head of Secretariat and Communications for Forestry Commission Wales, describes this as a “repositioning.” The vast majority of Wales’ forests are open to access on foot, and Elin Jones is promising to safeguard this.
Environmental challenges are of greater concern. Sixty-five per cent of the forest is still managed by clear-felling, where most or all of the trees in an area are cut down together, a policy labelled as damaging by Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales). Forestry Commission Wales wants to move towards more selection forestry, where mature timber and older trees are cut down to let other trees continue to grow, by 2013.
Diseases affecting larch and pine trees are a potent threat. Ramorum disease, which has afflicted Japanese larches in the UK before, was recently found in European larch species in Cornwall. Welsh forests are high-risk because a high proportion is grown in monoculture.
“I think we’ve got far too many of our eggs in one or two baskets,” says David Jenkins, Director of sustainable woodland management charity Coed Cymru.
The assembly’s woodland strategy sets out a plan to diversify the forests, both by having trees at different stages of maturity and a wider variety of species.
“I think that the woodlands at the moment are in a very vulnerable state,” adds David. “I think that the planning and policy process that will change them is in a healthy state.”
Coed Cymru has also been pioneering a project to reduce the amount of timber bought in for processing in Wales. At the moment, around 90 percent by value is imported. The Ty Unnos idea, recently given the European timber network’s InnovaWood Prize 2011, means using the characteristics of Welsh wood and designing buildings innovatively around them.
The assembly’s TAN 8 renewable energy strategy has set ambitious targets for electricity from wind turbines, which are running behind. There are 34 onshore wind farms in operation in Wales, with many more in the pipeline.
The proposed Pen y Cymoedd site between Neath and Aberdare, south of the Heads of the Valleys Road, would see 79 turbines built, each standing 475 feet high. Dutch energy firm Nuon points out that it will build on land designated for renewable energy production by the Forestry Commission and the area of forest permanently lost would be minimal. The project would create 300 construction jobs in the short term and be worth £1 billion to the Welsh economy over 25 years.
The Glyncorrwg Action Group, formed by residents from the village closest to the proposed wind farm, argues that the turbines should be kept out of sight.
“They’ll be on a ridge about 500 feet high and completely surrounding the village,” said spokesman Bob Slater. “We think that the visual impact will be overpowering and will completely destroy people’s views and affect their quality of life.”
Neath Port Talbot Council decided not to object to the proposal, while the Rhondda Cynon Taf planning authority will give its views soon. The Department of Energy and Climate Change will have the final say over whether the project goes ahead.
Hydroelectric energy schemes will also be putting a claim on Welsh forestry land. The Forestry Commission has identified a number of sites for projects such as hydroelectric dams.
The Welsh forest could soon be overseen by a single environmental body if the planned merger of Environment Agency Wales, Forestry Commission Wales and the Countryside Council for Wales goes ahead. Discussions have now reached a detailed stage.
A change of government after the National Assembly elections in May could also see a change of direction in Welsh woodland policy. But forestry is not something that can be planned over one, two or three years. It’s a long-term business.