FOLLOWING a debate in the House of Commons, the attitude of Welsh politicians in the UK Parliament was thrown into sharp focus by comments made by both Conservative minister Guto Bebb and Wrexham’s Labour MP Ian Lucas.
It was Mr Lucas’ remarks which attracted the most notable reaction by Welsh politicians in the first instance.
He asked Mr Bebb: “Does the Minister agree that leaving the European Union offers a golden opportunity to assess the level of subsidy paid to farming in Wales to see whether that money can be more effectively and efficiently spent in other areas?”
The inference to be drawn from the question was crystal clear and was pounced upon by Plaid Cymru.
CALL FOR COMMITMENT ON AGRICULTURE
Carmarthenshire’s Jonathan Edwards MP, who was sitting in front of Ian Lucas MP in the Commons, called for Labour to urgently clarify whether it will cut financial support for Welsh farmers.
Plaid Cymru Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Simon Thomas, said: “Ahead of the Referendum, the people of Wales were promised that no funding would be lost by leaving the European Union. Since then, Plaid Cymru has made it our duty to fight to protect the funding that Wales receives, but Labour seems to view it as a chance for a smash and grab on Wales’ funding.
“We know that 80% of Welsh farms are dependent on European funding to support their businesses, but Labour has shown complete disregard for the interests of the people of Wales and its agriculture sector.
“Labour really has let the mask slip. Whilst Plaid Cymru is focusing on protecting the interests of Welsh communities, Labour is plotting to cut their funding.”
Mr Edwards said: “Labour’s blatant and worrying attack on Welsh agriculture is yet another sign that the Labour party simply does not understand the Welsh agriculture sector or the challenges faced by our rural communities.
“The Welsh family farm is not only a core component of the Welsh agricultural sector and the Welsh economy, but is the main channel through which we as a nation can achieve food and environmental security.
“This expression of contempt for our agricultural sector is utterly unjustified. Welsh farmers face tremendous financial challenges in selling their produce and Labour should be focusing their efforts on facilitating Welsh agricultural exports, rather than marking them as a target for austerity and cuts.
“The Labour MP’s constituency partner, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths, urgently needs to answer whether her constituency’s partner’s question reflects official Labour Party policy.”
FARMERS ARE ‘WEALTHY LANDOWNERS’
The Labour MP was unrepentant about his remarks and has gone on to further criticise the Welsh farming community, stated that Welsh farmers are ‘wealthy landowners’.
The Herald invited the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs to respond to her Westminster colleague’s remarks.
A spokesperson for the Welsh Government told us: “The First Minister made it clear to the Prime Minister earlier this week he is seeking assurances that Welsh farmers do not lose out financially as a result of Brexit. This means every penny currently received from the EU being replaced by the UK Government. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs also reiterated this to the UK Government’s Farming Minister.
“As we prepare to withdraw from the European Union, we must use the opportunity over the coming years to assess the specific needs of the farming industry in Wales and identify how we can forge distinctly Welsh policies that will enable Welsh farming to prosper in a post-Brexit world.”
‘NOT A PENNY LESS’
Welsh Liberal Democrat William Powell told The Herald: “In the economic conditions that we now face as a country, pressure on the public purse will be all the more acute. The Welsh Liberal Democrats are supporting the ‘Not a Penny Less’ campaign in terms of farm support, and this has proved popular on our stand at this year’s Royal Welsh Show.
“However, it is more important than ever for farmers to engage in the public debate, so that there is a better understanding of the vital contribution that they make as custodians of the land, in terms both of maintaining biodiversity, but also to the whole tourist sector, which we know is such a critical part of the wider rural economy.
“However, more important than anything for Welsh farming is securing long -term access to the European Single Market for our quality farm exports – and making that an essential element in the permanent post Referendum settlement. And with Andrea Leadsom MP’s comments about hill farmers ‘looking after the butterflies ’, betraying an evident lack of understanding and empathy for Welsh farming, it is vital that Wales retains a robust and distinct farming policy. Welsh Liberal Democrats will be fighting for this in the time to come.”
LABOUR INSULTS RURAL COMMUNITIES
Andrew RT Davies was trenchant in his criticism both of Mr Lucas and Lesley Griffiths: “These comments once again highlight Labour’s attitude towards rural communities, and it is remarkable that their MPs are actively lobbying to give less money to farmers.
“It follows comments from Leslie Griffiths, the Cabinet Secretary who insulted Welsh farmers by suggesting that they don’t make good business owners. Now they want to take their money away.
“During the campaign, senior UK government ministers gave guarantees that Welsh farmers would not be worse off after the UK leaves the EU, and I will continue to work with those colleagues to ensure that those promises are delivered.”
THE LESS CERTAIN MR BEBB
However, an examination of Guto Bebb’s responses to Commons questions on Wales’ farming sector reveals a less certain picture.
The Undersecretary of State was questioned repeatedly on the impact of Brexit on the funding provided to Welsh farmers.
In response to Ian Lucas’s question, rather than giving a ringing ‘no’ and committing the UK Government to maintaining funding levels, Mr Bebb said (emphases added): “We need to look at the way in which Government spend money. IF there is to be a funding mechanism in the future for Welsh agriculture, it MUST BE LOOKED at in the totality of Government spending.”
That is some way short of promises made by senior UK Government ministers that Wales’ farmers would not be worse off.
And to further underline how conditional UK Government’s support is, responding to a question from Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid’s MP for Dwyfor Meiryonnydd, the limited reassurance given was an ‘assurance to the farming unions that the current funding situation is in place until 2018’.
That echoed a previous response to Mark Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion, in which the conditionality of UK Government support for Welsh agriculture was again underlined: “… The ongoing support for Welsh farming will be subject to agreements involving this Government, the way in which we exit the European Union and the decisions taken by the future Prime Minister.”
That is, again, a long way short of Andrew RT Davies’s reference to a promise that Welsh farmers would not be worse off.
The reluctance to commit to a definitive answer is striking, bearing in mind that in the same questions to the Welsh Office, Mr Bebb stated that: “The farming sector is the economic backbone of the Welsh rural economy. The total income from farming in Wales is estimated at more than £175 million, but more important is the contribution that Welsh agriculture makes to our rural communities.”
He also remarked that: “More than 60,000 jobs in Wales are dependent on the agriculture sector, and it would be short-sighted in the extreme for any Government to turn their back on a sector that puts Wales on the international map.”
‘FARMING IS WALES’ BEDROCK’
Speaking at the Royal Welsh Show last week, Glyn Roberts, President of the FUW, made a series of emphatic observations on the importance of Wales’s agricultural sector: “There are almost as many people engaged in the milk industry in Pembrokeshire as there are people making a living in our Welsh steel industry. Yet there is a clear imbalance in political focus for supporting these two very important industries – an imbalance which also extends to all our agricultural sectors.”
He added that his aspiration and, indeed, the intention of the Farmers’ Union of Wales is to change this.
“We want to see the value and importance of the rural economy truly recognised, and to build a visible and valued Rural Powerhouse – not something that attracts industrial focus in a small geographic area, like the north-east Wales ‘powerhouse’ built around foreign manufacturing; what is needed is recognition of the fact that 80% of our land mass is rural; that more than a third of Wales’ population live in rural areas; and that farming is the bedrock of our rural communities, without which vast direct and indirect contributions to Wales’ economy as a whole would disappear.”
Roy Noble joins campaign to stop mass tree-planting on agricultural land
ONE of Wales’ best-loved broadcasters has joined countryside campaigners in calling on the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to stop mass tree-planting on prime agricultural land, while also urging them to curtail ‘outside interests’ and ‘juggernaut companies’ from doing the same.
Roy Noble, who has been a constant feature on Welsh radio and TV for decades, said in a ‘personal plea to high officialdom’ that he had “real empathy” with farming families who “are out-bid” for land purchases by “financial combines”, who use it to offset their carbon emissions elsewhere by planting trees. He accused them of having “no empathy for, or real understanding of farming or the countryside”.
Appealing to the Welsh public, the OBE recipient argued that taking away agricultural land for tree planting risked limiting Wales’ ability to be self-sufficient and threatened food security.
He said: “The tragic and awful events unfolding in Ukraine and the world’s extreme financial strain currently impacting on our country should focus the mind and underline priorities, one being self-sufficiency. It stands at around 60% in Wales at present I believe, but experts agree, from the farming world and beyond that it could be vastly improved with official support. Of course, we cannot produce everything, but a greater percentage is a realistic goal.”
Mr Noble, who worked as a teacher before embarking on a career in broadcast, argued that tree planting has benefits when done in the ‘right place with the right trees’ stating: “Without a doubt, planting trees is regarded and accepted as a way to combat the climate emergency and global warming, but ‘right trees, right place, right effect’ is, I feel, an acceptable mantra in that process. Planting on productive, rich arable land, surely is not, and, if done, the implication and effect will last generations.”
He pointed at rural communities in the Cothi Valley, Carmarthenshire, where his ‘maternal lineage lived for many generations’ saying: “Many of the farming families, in all areas of Wales affected, are rooted in their land, their hallowed ground attached as it is to their soul and their very being. Many likely go back to the very early farmers. That heritage deserves recognition and respect, for all they have contributed and will continue to do, feeding a need, in food production, co-operating in climate crisis initiatives, and working with government and agricultural bodies on sensible paths.”
The broadcaster’s intervention comes as a petition, launched by Countryside Alliance Wales and now in its third week, continues to collect hundreds of signatures by the day. The petition, which is online, calls on the Welsh Government and NRW to ‘stop purchasing productive farmland to plant trees which threatens our fragile rural communities, heritage, culture and the Welsh language’.
It further adds: ‘We are deeply concerned about the number of companies purchasing productive farmland for tree planting to offset their carbon emissions and feel that the Welsh Government should further protect our communities from this practice’.
The petition was launched after a Countryside Alliance Freedom of Information request revealed the Welsh Government has spent a staggering £6million buying land with taxpayers’ money.
In February, the Welsh Government announced that new memorial woodlands would be created at three separate sites, including a section of farmland at Brownhill in Carmarthenshire’s Tywi Valley. The plans involve planting at least 60,000 trees, sparking fears that valuable agricultural land will be lost.
In the Carmarthenshire village of Cwrt-y-Cadno, Frongoch Farm was sold earlier last year to Foresight Group – a multi-billion pound private equity firm based in The Shard. It plans to plant thousands of trees across the valley, prompting locals to launch a fightback, arguing that the afforestation will be largely made up of conifers that could damage soil and have a negative impact on the landscape.
There are also multiple reports of farmers being targeted through cold-calls made by agents working for investors wanting to buy farmland to plant trees.
Rachel Evans, Director of Countryside Alliance Wales said: “It is truly a great honour to receive the support of Roy Noble in what is an incredibly important campaign. We cannot stand by and watch productive agricultural land get swallowed up for tree planting initiatives that while well intentioned, have long term, negative, irreversible consequences for farming families in Wales and threaten our ability to produce our own food. Every signature represents a voice and alongside Roy Noble, we urge the Welsh public to ensure their voices are heard by signing our petition today.”
The online petition can be found here: Take action: Save our Welsh farmland (ac-page.com)
Building on European funding successes vital to future of rural Wales
BUILDING on the benefits significant European funding has brought to projects in rural Wales and the commitment of communities who have delivered them will be crucial as we look to the future.
This is the message from Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths ahead of a 200-plus guest event beginning today at the Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells to celebrate the work of rural Wales.
For decades Wales has benefitted from support through the European Union’s Rural Development Programme (RDP). With the UK’s exit from the EU, this support is coming to an end, and the Welsh Government is now developing a truly Welsh approach to supporting the rural economy.
Activity through the RDP has been extensive, diverse and successful. This event, which includes a number of speakers and exhibitions, provides an opportunity to recognise and praise people’s work.
RDP funding has supported a project at Caswell Bay on the Gower Peninsula to help make the beach more accessible, inclusive and accommodating for those with physical and learning disabilities.
The support has helped create new facilities consist of a self-contained unit, complete with hoist, shower and changing bed and it is the first Changing Places facility on Gower.
The project has made a difference to thousands of residents and visitors with severe disabilities, who now have access and can enjoy the waters at Caswell Bay and have a dignified experience when changing and washing in a facility which is fit for purpose and meets their complex needs and requirements.
In Wrexham, the RDP supported the North Wales Wildlife Trust to initiate the ‘Biodiversity means business’ project. Through a collaborative approach involving businesses, landowners, farmers and community groups, the scheme has helped protect and improve ecosystems, habitats and species.
Adrian Lloyd Jones, North Wales Wildlife Trust Living Landscapes Manager said: “I am delighted to watch the unique partnership between the industrial and ecological aspects of this area strengthen day by day. While a business needs a sound foundation to grow, so does an ecosystem.
“This project, with business and conservation working together, has given back to nature and allowed all forms of life,be they human, flora or fauna, to benefit and thrive, making life better for future generations.”
At the beginning of the RDP programme, the Welsh Government set out to boost the productivity of the farming, forestry and food sectors. To date, this has helped create nearly 2,400 new jobs and protect more than 2,150.
The aim was also to create 34,000 training places to foster innovation, knowledge transfer, co-operation, more sustainable farming practices and stronger rural businesses. This has almost tripled, with in excess of 90,000 people trained through Farming Connect, food centres and support for the timber sector.
Ahead of the Celebration of Rural Wales event, Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths said: “Our rural communities play a vital role in Welsh life and we have a lot to be proud of.
“European Union funding has helped us protect and restore thousands of hectares of our habitats and we are also seeing biodiversity in our grasslands starting to stabilise and, in some areas, improve.
“All of this and more could not have been done without the commitment and determination of Welsh farmers, landowners, and the rural workforce.
“We face a number of challenges as the impacts of the decision to leave the European Union, the subsequent free trade agreements, the Covid-19 pandemic and now the conflict in Ukraine are being felt across the board.
“We are grateful to the European Union for their support, and we must build on our achievements through the Rural Development Programme as we develop a bespoke Welsh approach to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead of us.
“In April, I announced an initial £227m over the next three years to support our rural economy. This is only the start and we know more needs to be done, and further support will be provided as we transition to Sustainable Farming Scheme and build a new, green economy responding to the nature and climate emergencies
“Working together has always been a real strength across our rural communities and sectors. This will only become increasingly more important as we deliver towards the challenges and opportunities ahead of us.”
Carmarthenshire farmer admits causing slurry pollution
A CARMARTHENSHIRE farmer has admitted failing to comply with an order to improve his slurry storage and causing slurry pollution in two nearby rivers during a hearing at Llanelli Magistrates’ Court.
Noel Richards, a farmer responsible for the running of Coedmoelon and Rhydolau farms, pleaded guilty to all three offences at Llanelli Magistrates’ Court on Friday, April 22.
He was ordered to pay £2,153 in fines, a further £2,344 in court costs and a victim surcharge of £190.
Matthew Lowe, Environment Team Leader, of Natural Resource Wales, said: “Mr Richards self-reported one of the slurry incidents to NRW, which was the most appropriate and responsible thing to do to minimise the impact of the pollution on our land and waterways.
“However I must stress that both incidents could have been prevented had Mr Richards taken the required steps to adhere to regulations around the safe storage of slurry.
“We work closely and positively with farmers to help them comply with regulations and minimise the risks of causing agricultural pollution. Where farmers ignore our requests and put people, nature and our natural resources at risk, we will prosecute.”
In February 2018 Mr Richards was issued with a notice to carry out required compliance works to a slurry lagoon at Coed Moelon Farm to ensure it adheres to the required standards of the Water Resources (Control of Pollution) (Silage and Slurry) (Wales) Regulations 2010.
The notice has not been complied with to date.
On 22 September 2020, NRW received a report of slurry pollution in the stream running into the Afon Dulais.
An Environment Officer attended the site and witnessed the stream discoloured along with an agricultural odour. The officer traced the pollution back to a dirty water tank at Rhydolau Farm.
Mr Richards was cooperative and the pollution was contained as soon as the source was identified.
On 3 December 2020, NRW received a call from Mr Richards self-reporting a pollution incident where slurry had entered a tributary of the Afon Gwendraeth Fawr.
Mr Richards explained that they had spread slurry the week before, but the recent rainfall had washed the slurry into the watercourse. An Environment Officer attended the site and found the stream discoloured with large amounts of foam.
The officer traced the pollution back to a field belonging to Coed Moelon Farm that had been spread with slurry.
Matthew Lowe added: “I urge farmers and contractors to be vigilant to help prevent polluting our waterways. Carry out regular checks on slurry levels and storage infrastructure. Only spread slurry when conditions are right, for example, not spreading at times when rain is forecast over the next 24 hours, when the ground is saturated or when the ground is frozen hard.
“We recognise that sometimes things do go wrong, but we urge farmers or contractors who know they have caused pollution, to report it to NRW immediately by calling 0300 065 3000. The sooner we know about it, the sooner we can work with them to try and reduce the impact on the environment.”
To report a pollution incident call NRW’s 24-hour incident hotline on 0300 065 3000.
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