uplands sheep with lambs©Wayne Hutchison/FLPA/ImageBroker/Rex/Shutterstock

Farm leaders and environmentalists have clashed over the value of “rewilding” the countryside at a lively debate at the first Countryfile Live event.

The pros and cons of rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – were debated on the first day of the event, held at Blenheim Palace on Thursday (4 August).

Some conservationists, including environmentalist and author George Monbiot, argue that our countryside should be allowed to revert to its natural state.

See also: Farm leaders hit back at Monbiot flood claims

They would like to see hill farms replaced by trees and long-lost species such as beavers, lynx – or even wolves – reintroduced in the countryside in carefully selected areas.

However, many landowners believe this could wreck the rural economy, push farmers off their fields and ruin their own conservation efforts.

Speaking at the debate, Mr Monbiot branded sheep farming in the uplands for creating “more damage to the living world than all the building that has ever taken place”.

Mr Monbiot claimed sheep “nibble out tree seedlings” and “prevent forests from regenerating”. He also claimed there were scarcely any trees on hill farms above 200m.

He branded sheep farming “fantastically unproductive” and said that without subsidies, it would fail to continue.

“We are paying for environmental destruction, for floods downstream and all the rest and we could have something much better,” said Mr Monbiot.

Although three-quarters of the Welsh countryside was devoted to livestock farming, Wales imports seven times the amount of meat it produces, claimed Mr Monbiot. However, he did not provide any sources to back up his figures.

Farmer backlash

NFU Cymru deputy president John Davies seized on Mr Monbiot’s comments and challenged his claims.

Mr Davies, who runs a diversified sheep and beef farm with his family in Merthyr Cynog, near Brecon, Powys, said: “We will be planting over 4,000 saplings on the tree line to create a new hedge next year.

“We’ve already done it and it has been highly successful in the past – just over 400m.

“We’ve planted thousands of hardwood [trees] – a lovely mix. It creates a shelter bed where sheep can lamb and cows can calve.”

Mr Davies questioned Mr Monbiot’s figures on lamb, saying Welsh government statistics showed Wales exported 54% of its lamb last year.

“In Wales, the rural economy of food and farming contributes £6.1bn to the Welsh economy and it employs 27% of the people in Wales. Never forget that.”

Richard Cooke, chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups, said he fully accepted that grazing has been a “major engineer of change on the environment”.

But he added: “Whether it’s good or bad is rather a subjective matter.”

Rewilding quotes

“If you are asking me whether I want to reconnect with a wolf at close quarters, my answer is: ‘No!’” NFU Cymru deputy president John Davies

“We should be asking ourselves: ‘Why is it that when Europe has a forest cover of 37%, we [the UK] have just 13%”. environmentalist and writer George Monbiot

“I think rewilding is about the three Rs. Reconnecting people and nature, restoring habitats that benefit people and nature and repairing ecosystems.” RSPB chief executive Mike Clarke

“We have a very managed landscape. There is probably a consensus that we could have done it better. We are acquiring the wisdom to do it better in the future.” Richard Cooke, chairman of the Association of Deer Management

For the full story on the debate, see the next issue of Farmers Weekly, on sale on Friday 12 August.