Wales must pump millions more pounds into tree planting if it is to have any chance of meeting its Climate Emergency aspirations, critics have claimed.
At present, only around a third of the budget is available to meet the Welsh Government’s minimum target of creating 2,000ha of new woodlands each year, said forestry group Confor .
Moreover, delays in processing tree planting grants under Cardiff’s Glastir Woodland Creation scheme mean few woodlands will be established this winter anyway, said Confor.
Anthony Geddes, Confor’s Wales manager, said that if Cardiff was serious about climate change, it needed to allocate more money for tree planting.
Otherwise its Climate Emergency was just a “meaningless statement”, he said.
“Recent protests show the public desire for a low carbon Wales,” he said.
“Failure to act now would be a blow for the people of Wales and future generations.”
In previous years £1.7m was allocated to the Glastir Woodlands scheme for each of its two annual application windows.
However the autumn 2018 window was suspended and just £1m was allocated to the spring 2019 window.
This gave a 12-month budget that was sufficient to plant 240ha of trees – just 12% of Cardiff’s minimum target.
At this year’s Royal Welsh Show , rural affairs minister Lesley Griffiths announced the budget for the autumn 2019 window would rise to £2m.
This followed a surge in interest from farmers and landowners who see trees as a good investment for marginal land, especially with Brexit on the horizon.
Confor said Glastir applications for 2,800ha of woodlands have been received this year so far. To fund them all, a budget of £11.8m would be needed.
Compounding the problem has been application processing issues by Rural Payments Wales. Instead of taking eight weeks, as in previous years, Confor claims the process now takes 18 weeks.
s a result, many landowners will miss this winter’s tree planting season, it said.
According to Confor, one woodland agent handled planting applications totalling 500ha this year – but only saw grants approved for 5ha.
Confor has been told delays are due to a “lack of detail” supplied by applicants.
“The number and size of applications has outstripped anything we’ve seen since Glastir started,” he said.
“The increase in funding to £2m for the current application window is very positive but it still falls well short of what is needed to achieve targets.”
To achieve a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, the Welsh Government has targeted 66,000ha of additional tree planting. Starting at 2,000ha per year, this quickly needs to rise to 4,000ha-a-year.
Just to fund the 2,000ha target, a Glastir budget of £8.5m is required, said Confor.
Farm unions have expressed concern at the planned rate of afforestation: if Cardiff’s target is met, NFU Cymru estimates that, by 2030, trees will cover almost 1,400 “average-sized” farms .
At current planting rates, these fears are unlikely to be realised, said Confor.
“At the moment, we are falling well short of what is needed,” said Mr Geddes.
“If the Welsh Government is serious about the climate emergency, it needs to fund the planting of millions more trees.”
Lengthy planning processes and high drop-out rates
The Welsh Government has been frustrated by the “substantial” number of landowners who apply for woodland grants but then fail to spend them.
This, it said, was the “single largest issue” with the Glastir Woodland Creation scheme.
Securing grants, and organising planting, can be a lengthy process.
Once outline applications are approved, landowners must work with a woodland planner to prepare detailed plans, often involving adjoining landowners.
These plans are then checked by Natural Resources Wales to ensure planting takes place on appropriate land.
To address the high drop-out rates, Cardiff worked with Confor to introduce a two-stage selection process.
“We are also looking at ways to ensure any future applications will guarantee the budget committed will be spent,” said a spokesman.
All funds available within Wales’ Rural Development Programme budget has now been fully allocated, said Cardiff.
This includes match-funded contributions to the GWC scheme.
Since 2014 almost £400m has been earmarked for ecosystem management, efficient energy use and carbon reduction.
“At this stage, RPW is able to offer contracts to applicants with a 31 March 2021 planting deadline,” added the spokesman.