The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has called for hedgerows to be included in the Welsh government’s 10% woodland requirement in the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS).

GWCT said research shows that good-sized hedgerows provide equal or better carbon storage than 1ha of low-yield woodland of all species commonly planted in Wales.

In several cases, the hedgerows exceed the carbon sequestration of moderate-yield woodland over ten years, the conservation charity said.

“It seems very strange that a hawthorn bush in an area of scrub can be counted towards Welsh government’s proposed woodland cover but a hawthorn bush within a hedge cannot,” it said.

“GWCT have shared evidence derived from work on the Hedgerow Carbon Code and other means of carbon capture on farms with Welsh government to take forward within the SFS but unfortunately, they have not yet shown interest.”

GWCT director for Wales, Lee Oliver, said: “If the sector is damaged, food security becomes an obvious issue, however, Welsh government have also failed to recognise the wider economic impact which will have a negative knock-on effect on the environment as well as other businesses that rely upon farming in rural areas.

“As farmers will tell you, they can’t be green if they are in the red.”

Demonstration farm

GWCT said its own demonstration farm, which manages 12-13% as ecologically enhanced habitat for wildlife recovery, is an example of productive farming and wildlife recovery as it reversed farmland bird declines.

GWCT maintains that nature recovery is possible alongside productive, profitable farming, with the greatest efficiencies achieved by ecologically enhancing unproductive land.

“Delivering wildlife recoveries more efficiently can also include other forms of conservation alongside habitat management such as predation management, although that’s another area Welsh government has refused to look at the science or consider objectively,” it said.

“The Welsh government’s proposals of a compulsory 10% tree cover alongside 10% semi-natural habitat might be applauded by some conservation organisations, however, if it is not realistic or is simply unachievable for farmers they will either not opt-in or be forced out of business, both of which lead to dire consequences for Welsh wildlife and the environment.

“Interestingly, previous schemes have recognised that 5 – 7% of good quality (ecologically enhanced) habitat was enough to recover declining farmland bird populations, and if we recognise that good woodland is habitat too, the leap to a potential 20% habitat proposal seems vast.”

Sustainable Farming Scheme

GWCT said it is concerned that the latest Welsh government’s SFS consultation remains “a consultation in name only”.

“Despite consultations in various guises since 2018 when ‘Brexit and our Land’ was launched, the Welsh government appear to be no further forward in developing a realistic Agri-environment scheme which properly rewards farmers for nature recovery alongside profitable, productive farming.

“The Welsh farming community is rightly up in arms defending their right to continue farming their land productively. With profit and loss margins already extremely narrow for many Welsh farms the proposals could be incredibly damaging.

“Although a worst-case scenario, the economic report modelling the potential impact of the SFS is damning, with estimates of 10.8% livestock unit reductions and a workforce reduction of 11% for the farming sector.”

Therefore, the GWCT, said if the 10% tree planting is purely to meet targets for carbon sequestration, the science here is “complex and far from straightforward forward” and tree planting is an “oversimplified solution”.