One of the most controversial environmental management debates currently taking place in Wales is around the planting of trees in upland areas.

The Welsh Government, recognizing the significant potential benefits of woodland, have announced a long-term aim of creating a ‘National Forest for Wales’ – a ‘connected network of woodlands’ in order to ‘create areas of new woodland’ and ‘help to restore and maintain some of our irreplaceable ancient woodlands’

However, recent examples of large companies based outside Wales buying entire farms in order to plant trees for carbon offsetting has brought the discussion around land-use, particularly in upland areas, to the fore.

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The Welsh Government’s aim reflects the fact that woodlands can bring a wide range of ecological, hydrological, social and economic benefits. Trees and the soils beneath them can be important stores of carbon, reducing carbon in the atmosphere and helping to address the climate crisis.

In small river catchments, recent evidence suggests that woodlands can reduce and delay peak river discharge – they can ‘slow the flow’. In larger river catchments the impact of woodland may depend on factors such as the extent and location of planting, and there are questions regarding the impact of planting on flows during drier summers.

Woodlands provide important habitats and promote biodiversity, as well as other important ecosystem services, such as natural spaces for leisure ad exercise, which can benefit physical and mental health.

However, the rapid expansion of commercial forestry in the mid twentieth century, and its impact on Welsh upland farming communities casts a long shadow over discussions today. Entwined with other changes in land use in during the period, such as dam-building (e.g. the flooding of Capel Celyn) and the appropriation of Mynydd Epynt by the Ministry of Defence, this expansion was seen as a threat to the Welsh language and culture as small family farms were purchased by the Forestry Commission.

Key figures in the Welsh nationalist movement – poets Gwenallt, Waldo Williams and Tilsli and author Islwyn Ffowc Elis all wrote passionately about this rapid change and it’s impact.

Their work has endured, for the most part, as touchstones in the current debate. Gwenallt’s visceral ‘Rhydcymerau’ which talks of the area of Carmarthenshire where his family had it’s roots being changed from a civilized area where poetry and religion thrived into a ‘Minotaur’s lair’ – ‘Trees where there was a neighbourhood / a forest where there were farms’.  

‘Rhydcymerau’ was quoted in the House of Commons in 2016 by Liz Savile-Roberts MP as part of a debate on upland farming and flood mitigation and has been extensively quoted in discussions about the purchase of farms for tree planting recently, particularly in the Tywi valley.

Waldo’s ‘Preseli’, written as a response to moves by the MoD to establish a training centre there talks of ‘y fforest ddiffenestr’ (a ‘windowless forest’) and is one of his best known poems.

Ffowc Elis’s ‘Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd’ (A Week in Future Wales) is one of the best-known Welsh novels. Published by Plaid Cymru in 1957, a dystopian Wales, visited by the story’s hero, Ifan Powell, is extensively forested. Mobility through the forest is restricted, uranium mines and military complexes are hidden within it, Welsh villages, their names, and ultimately the Welsh language is lost beneath the forest that ‘makes monsters of everyone who works within it.’

Tilsli’s ode ‘Cwm Carnedd’, which won the chair at the 1957 Eisteddfod similarly paints a picture of the demise of upland communities with the expansion of forestry. These literary works all had extensive reach and to varying degrees continue to be influential in Welsh-language culture.

In the mid 1970s, the Forestry Commission published a fascinating handbook – ‘Cambrian Forests’ – part travel guide-part manifesto for woodlands which described the ‘Cambrian Forest that extended across mid Wales.

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The chapters expanded on the commercial benefits of woodlands (providing timber but also employment) as well as their ecological benefits, but also made links with the social and cultural history of trees in mid Wales, with chapters written by a range of key figures including the geographer E.G. Bowen and David Jenkins from the National Library of Wales.

A guide to Welsh pronounciation was included at the end, following detailed guides on how to travel through the area, where to stay, where to walk and picnic etc, and some chapters began with relevant quotations of historic Welsh poetry. Perhaps most significantly, the chapter by Richard Phillips on agriculture in the Cambrian Forest emphasises the need for the two industries of forestry and agriculture to coexist:

‘The future prosperity of this waist-band of Wales, extending to over a million acres of land, must rest upon the mutual support of the twin industries of agriculture and forestry....

... Those with the welfare of this region at heart are very hopeful that forestry will … become thoroughly and intimately integrated with agriculture. When the two industries co-exist in this blissful state, then prosperity is assured, not only in the countryside but also in the neighbouring small market towns.’

Achieving that thorough and intimate integration remains one of the key challenges facing the Welsh uplands. In light of these historical public discussions that show how woodlands have been positively and negatively viewed in Wales, how can we increase the wide variety of benefits offered by woodlands while at the same time ensuring the economic, social and cultural sustainability and vitality of agriculture in the Welsh uplands?

How can we work through the concerns and suspicions that have been so deeply ingrained by past experiences? In an uncertain future outside the European Union, these questions require urgent consideration through novel methods that allow all voices to be heard.

Hywel Griffiths is Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University. His research interests are broad, but are focused around flooding and river processes, documentary records of past flood events, public perception of flooding and environmental management, and science communication.

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