Protecting the global environment is important and we must all play our part. It’s the mantra of 2021. And halting wildlife decline was at the forefront of the Welsh Government narrative when they recently attended the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.

As a nation there would be few disagreeing that biodiversity should be conserved or that wildlife delivers immense well-being benefits to many people.

READ MORE: Senedd declares nature emergency in Wales over biodiversity loss

And yet in Wales, archaic 1960s forestry law does wildlife no favours. It means enforceable conditions simply cannot be placed on tree felling licences in order to protect forest species. It doesn’t matter whether rare plants or animals are living amongst the tree-tops or not, it is currently not possible to include mandatory conditions to ensure forest operations are sympathetic to wildlife conservation.

For example, it may be sensible to limit the seasons when tree cutting can occur, to restrict timber harvesting to certain types of machines and to prescribe the spatial pattern of tree felling. Currently this precautionary approach simply cannot be included in the conditions of a felling licence. Efforts to conserve woodland wildlife effectively have both hands tied behind their back.

The National Wales: Dr Craig Shuttleworth from Bangor UniversityDr Craig Shuttleworth from Bangor University

With a few small exceptions, a licence from Natural Resources Wales is required to cut down woodland. Ensuring that the licensing authority has the widest flexibility to integrate wildlife conservation into multi-objective forestry is essential if we are to reverse biodiversity declines.

I believe that Wales should follow the example in Scotland. Tree felling licences there can include prescriptive conditions to help wildlife. The power is set in a legislative framework that also allows licences to be suspended and revoked where necessary. The Scots revised forest laws, recalibrating the relative importance of biodiversity conservation so species such as the red squirrel might flourish. We need the same legislative utility here.

On December 8th, the Senedd will debate my petition for new laws to protect forest wildlife habitat. I anticipate cross-party support. The Senedd Species Champion for red squirrel, Darren Miller MS, has doggedly pushed for law-change. Rhun ap Iorwerth MS has supported steps to safe-guard woodland species. And recently I had a positive meeting with officials acting on behalf of the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Water. It’s on the cards that the Welsh Government will introduce new legislation similar to that in Scotland.

There is however an elephant in the room when it comes to Welsh forestry: Natural Resources Wales. They manage the Welsh Government woodland estate and as such are not subject to any felling licence application process. Instead, the agency uses ten-year duration landscape-plans which can simply be annually extended beyond a decade ad infinitum and until such time as a newer ten year plan is produced. Although there is public consultation when a plan is first drafted, there is no ongoing consultation and unadaptive plans remain rigidly in place come what may.

On Ynys Môn, NRW have repeatedly clear-felled large forest areas without any consideration of the impact on local red squirrel populations. The agency admitted undertaking no squirrel monitoring despite independent audit recommending it be carried out. They have failed to replace trees they cut with new ones, during one audit, 40,000 trees were unaccounted for.

It’s a shambles.

A forest regulator which can act with impunity and avoid critical review can only be a dragging anchor in terms of dynamic species conservation. They must do better, and in the north east of Wales have shown they can. Here in the upland Clocaenog spruce forest, NRW staff are fully invested in an integrated forestry approach that is turning around the fortunes of the red squirrel. It’s an exemplar of an agency working pragmatically with the local community to deliver first class forestry and world class conservation. They have set the standard for others within NRW to follow. It just needs those at the top to recognise it.

Dr Craig Shuttleworth is a research fellow at Bangor University. 

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