Analysis: Challenges threaten future of Welsh farming

The primary function of farmers is to grow crops and raise livestock for food production, while retaining natural ecosystems as custodians of the countryside.

But many Welsh farmers feel their essential role as food producers is under threat from multiple competing demands for land, and the need to tackle climate change and help meet the UK government’s ambition of reaching net zero by 2050.

At this week’s Royal Welsh Show, two subjects dominated the political agenda – and both sparked controversy.

See also: NFU Cymru leaders threaten to shun Sustainable Farming Scheme

First, the Welsh government’s plans to double down on its 10% tree cover target as a condition to receive future payments under the planned Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) sparked an angry backlash from farmers and unions.

Second, farm leaders expressed shock after the Welsh government announced all Glastir contracts will end on 31 December this year and be replaced by an interim agri-environment scheme until the SFS starts in 2025.

Genuine anger

The 10% tree cover proposal has provoked genuine anger among farmers, who say they will have to cut production to achieve it. 

Those farmers believe they are being used as a means to an end by the Welsh government to achieve a “quick win” to meet its own 43,000ha tree planting target by 2030.

Robin and Jo Ransome run a small livestock farm in Bleddfa, near Knighton, Powys, where they keep 16 breeding cows and 120 sheep.

Speaking from the cattle sheds at the Royal Welsh showground in Llanelwedd, Mr Ransome summed up the exasperation many Welsh farmers feel about current farm policy.

“The Welsh government does not want farmers,” he sighed. “But where is the world going to get its food from? We’re only 60% self-sufficient in the UK. If we reduce food production, we’re going to have to import more, adding air miles and extra pollution.”

Mr Ransome said requiring all farmers in Wales to plant at least 10% tree cover on their land and then make up any shortage in food through imports would also deplete food supplies to third-world countries.

Giving up productive farmland to allow investors, including airline companies, to plant trees to offset their carbon emissions was unjust, he added.

Sapling supply

Something else the government doesn’t seem to have factored into its calculations is the loss of saplings to drought and disease – a considerable number of trees planted in Wales ahead of the 2022 drought withered and died.

NFU Cymru deputy president Abi Reader, who is growing 1.6ha of trees as an agroforestry project to produce biochar for use in cement and plaster production, said she experienced an 80% failure rate with those trees.

But the Welsh government insists trees are an asset to the farm – for example, providing shelter for livestock in extreme weather and biosecurity barriers on farm boundaries.

The policy was challenged by NFU president Minette Batters. Speaking at an NFU Cymru seminar on food supply, she pointed out that “while the Welsh government is placing a vast emphasis on trees, Wales grows the greatest crop on earth – grass”.

“Grass is more important than anything,” she said. “We are hugely privileged in Great Britain that we can grow it.”

Government view

The Welsh government told Farmers Weekly the first-ever made-in-Wales Agriculture Bill, which was passed by the Senedd recently, will enable “ambitious and transformational support” for farmers to produce food sustainably, and to conserve and enhance the Welsh countryside, culture and language.

 A spokesperson said: “We want to keep farmers on the land in recognition that food production is vital for our nation.

“The proposals set out in our Sustainable Farming Scheme, which will commence in 2025, are designed to tackle the nature and climate emergencies, alongside the sustainable production of food.”

Other threats to Welsh food supply


Rewilding is a topic that divides opinion.

Advocates want farmers to stand back and let nature take its course, but farmers worry that it will accelerate a move away from food production and their traditional livelihoods.

The idea of restoring land to a natural state and creating more nature-friendly farming practices seems like a good one in theory, but if a fertile farm is turned over to pure conservation, then it is lost to food production.

By importing food when Wales has the land and climate to grow its own, the country could be guilty of simply exporting its environmental obligations.

Farmers instead want pockets of rewilding on marginal and unproductive land within their existing farming systems.

In 2018, Britain’s largest ever rewilding project, Summit to Sea, was launched as an ambition to create a 10,117ha expanse of wild land from the top of Pumlumon Mountain in mid-Wales to the coast at Cardigan Bay. 

Within a year, the project instigators had abandoned that vision after they met with fierce resistance from farmers, foresters and local communities.

NVZ rule change

Welsh government plans to impose an annual 170kg/ha nitrogen restriction on spreading organic manure on farmland to help tackle water pollution will force many livestock farmers to destock or spend large sums of money upgrading slurry storage facilities.

AHDB modelling shows that to meet the current 170kg/ha nitrogen limit from livestock manures under these regulations, the stocking density on Welsh dairy farms would have to reduce by 17%.

To put this in milk volume terms, it could be the equivalent of a 336m-litre reduction in milk output a year.

NFU Cymru president Aled Jones likened that loss to losing the First Milk creamery in Haverfordwest or the Glanbia plant at Llangefni.

Losing that production capacity would have “massive consequential impacts for the Welsh agri food supply chain”, he said.

“It is morally wrong to allow food production capacity to be cut,” he said.

Abattoir closures

Fraser McAuley, CLA Cymru senior policy adviser, said the closure of abattoirs is becoming more of an issue for farmers in Wales, as in England.

He recently visited the Rhug Estate in Corwen, north Wales, run by Lord Newborough, and during a presentation was told they could not find anyone local to slaughter their livestock.

“If small-scale abattoirs can’t run economically on their own, the Welsh government needs to look at the wider benefits of these to the community – animal health and welfare, access to locally produced meat for individuals,” said Mr McAuley.

Poultry pressure

Some regions of Wales with an already high density of broiler and free-range egg farms are now considered to be virtually off limits for new poultry housing because the prospect of securing planning permission and a permit are so unlikely.

The uncertainty and cost are putting off would-be developers, and evidence from planning consultants supports this.

Ian Pick, who has helped dozens of farmers secure consent for poultry units in recent years, would once have had up to 50 planning applications for broiler farms and free-range egg units on the go.

He now has less than a handful.

What’s the biggest threat to your farming business?

“The new nitrate vulnerable zone regulations. We need slurry storage for five or six months. I will either have to keep fewer animals or spend the extra money to increase storage capacity. Financially, it’s very hard to find the money.”

Andrew Evans, beef and sheep farmer, Pembrokeshire

“If the Welsh government approves a blanket approach to 10% tree cover, some farms – for example, in Pembrokeshire – just won’t be able to do it. There needs to be greater flexibility for farms like our own that could take on 15% tree cover.”

Ella Harris, Radnor YFC county vice-chairwoman

“Bovine TB. We run a show livery business for cattle. If we were unable to move, or shut down, the liveries wouldn’t be able to show their products. We wouldn’t be able to sell their cattle on. It would snooker the whole business.”

Thea Woollatt, beef farmer, Chepstow, Monmouthshire

What food is worth 

The Welsh food and drink industry is worth £8.5bn annually and employs 250,000 people.

According to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Wales delivers 5.2% of the UK’s food and drink manufacturing turnover.

Wales exported £0.7bn worth of food and drink products in 2022 – an increase of 24.2%, which is 2.9% of all UK food and drink exports, the FDF says. The top three exports were meat, cereals and dairy.

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