A farmer who wanted to help tackle climate change by planting 12,000 trees on his Powys property, ended up being forced to pay a £15,000 fine.

David Mills joined the Glastir Woodland Creation scheme, where farmers were offered grants to plant trees and payments to maintain them over 12 years, in 2015.

Welsh Government planners came to his Coygen farm, just outside Lower Chapel, between Builth Wells and Brecon, to put the project in motion.

But it was only five years later, in February this year, that Mr Mills was told by Rural Payments Wales he was the one who had contravened original plans, with satellite images apparently informing him some of the planted sections on his 20 acres differed from original proposals – in some cases by as little as 10 centimetres (four inches).

“It’s just ridiculous bureaucracy,” said Mr Mills, who is 60 years old. 

“And to find out five years later. It was in spring 2016 that the planting took place. I’ve had no contact at all until February this year. And what they sent me came as a memo, saying I had this fine. It took them five years to take a photo.

“I felt I had to pay it there and then because of such high interest. I know another farmer in Cwmbran who’s been fined £20,000 and not paid it.”

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After registering his interest in 2015, the Welsh Government took the reigns – which has left Mr Mills even more infuriated, because it’s their error.

He added: “It was 2015 when I made an expression of interest. I thought ‘this sounds good’. I was instructed by the Welsh Government that I had to use their planners. They drew up the plans, I agreed, they approved and arranged the tree planting, marking out where the fences go on lots of different areas of the farm.

“I was told I couldn’t do it without a woodland planner. He drew up the plans, marked it with stakes and I paid him an overall figure. The fact that they did it wrong would never have occurred to me.”

Mr Mills received £30,000 in government grant funding – but he says the costs to get the project off the ground exceeded that amount.

“Plans cost £13,000, the fencing was £7-8,000, then materials pushed it just over £30,000,” he said. “I get about £2,000 a year from it but I’ve lost the grazing land. They’re fining me for planting on my own land.

“I get a whacking great fine that makes me feel like why don’t I just bulldoze the whole lot down?

“I’ve spoken to neighbours who thought I was crazy to get involved and said they’d never touch a Welsh Government scheme because they’ve got their own little stories where they’ve been fiddled; no-one trusts the Welsh Government.”

Mr Mills isn’t a generation farmer. He ran his own business before saving enough money to buy Coygen in 2013. And one major reason for doing so was because he wanted to get involved in a scheme that looked after the environment.

“I was genuinely thinking of the environment, I wanted shelter belts and to encourage wildlife,” he said.

“I thought it would bring in butterflies and insects and generally help the environment. Lots of people went for cheaper trees but I paid a bit extra, because I was interested in it, it wasn’t simply to make money.

“I’ve been managing it myself and I’m interested in what’s happening. I enjoyed the fact I was farming with conservation and the environment in mind. I’ve been doing everything I can do support insect life and biodiversity.”

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He isn’t sure whether he’ll ever see the £15,000 again, with the appeal process into the second stage, but he’s insistent he wants to “keep the pot boiling”.

And that shouldn’t be hard, with NFU Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives voicing their support.

Stella Owen, NFU Cymru county adviser for Brecon & Radnor, said: “Welsh farmers are eager to play their part in tackling climate change.

“The industry recognises the role that tree planting has to play in sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and many farmers across the country have already incorporated substantial amounts of tree planting onto their farms.

“We are aware of cases where farmers have been penalised significant sums of money under the scheme; our staff are currently supporting members with cases through the Welsh Government appeal process.

“It is concerning to see cases where farmers have invested in tree planting and fencing to protect these trees and subsequently find themselves heavily penalised. This is of benefit to no-one; farmers will lose faith if they have concerns that they will be penalised as a result of the bureaucracy and complexity associated with the scheme.”

Welsh Conservative shadow minister for climate change, Janet Finch-Saunders, weighed in, saying: “Once again, we see nonsensical rules overriding common sense, with Welsh farmers being fined for simply doing their bit to fight climate change.

The National Wales: Janet Finch-Saunders, MS for Aberconwy. Photo: SeneddJanet Finch-Saunders, MS for Aberconwy. Photo: Senedd

“Most people would have expected a pat on the back, but instead they’ve been slapped with a £15,000 fine and for what? Planting a tree mere inches out of place.

“It’s disgraceful and this approach from Labour is only going to put off hardworking people and hold back our fight against climate change in Wales.”

The Welsh Government said it could not comment on a case which was subject to an appeal, but admitted it was reviewing the current rules of the scheme.

“Contracts can be verified by on-farm visits or the use of latest available aerial imagery,” said a spokesperson.

“When the scheme verification shows the conditions of the contract have not been met, the Welsh Government has a statutory obligation to apply European Commission rules concerning the recovery of payments and application of over-declaration penalties.

“We are committed to supporting farmers to create more woodland in order to tackle climate change.”

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