Senedd debates ‘Rewilding’ on World Environment Day

“Public money must support public good, not private profit,” says Joyce


Joyce Watson AM led a World Environment Day (5 June) National Assembly for Wales debate on the topic of ‘rewilding’.

Rewilded land is restored to its natural uncultivated state, often with the reintroduction of wild animals.


A new £3.4 million project to rewild a large area of north Ceredigion and the Dyfi Valley – Summit to Sea – has been slammed by Plaid Cymru politicians and farming leaders. However, the Labour Mid and West Wales AM argued the project is a vital response to climate change and biodiversity decline. She said:


Today is World Environment Day, and this year especially it feels like it comes at an important moment. We’ve seen the Extinction Rebellion protest and school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. Hundreds of young people demonstrated outside this Assembly in February as part of the global youth strike for climate movement. At the same time, people have been watching David Attenborough’s new BBC series on climate change and demanding political action across Europe. Something momentous seems to be happening. The Welsh Government is at the vanguard. It has declared a climate emergency. The Minister said that she hopes the declaration will trigger a wave of action. Yesterday we saw that when the First Minister announced the M4 relief road will not go ahead because we have to give more weight to the environmental argument.


Rewilding is a hot topic, and a controversial one. It tends to grab headlines when carnivores are reintroduced, like bears and wolves. Here in Wales, the Wildlife Trusts are leading the Welsh beaver project, which is investigating the feasibility of bringing back wild beavers along the River Cowyn and Nant Cennin, Carmarthenshire. And the Vincent Wildlife Trust has identified mid-Wales as having the best habitats for the wildcat.


“According to a new report by the organisation Rewilding Britain, as much as a quarter of the UK’s land could be restored to nature without a consequential fall in food production or farm incomes. And the group is calling for billions of pounds in farm subsidies to be spent on creating native woodlands and meadows, and on protecting peat bogs and salt marshes. As well as helping wildlife, they claim that the plan could cut our country’s carbon emissions to zero.


Mrs Watson, who sits on the Assembly’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs committee, continued:


“Yesterday, the Minister published the Welsh Government’s policy response to its ‘Brexit and our land’ consultation, and at the heart of it is the principle that public money must support public good, not private profit. The crucial thing is to define what constitutes a public good. Rewiliding Britain’s plan is to put carbon sequestration front and centre as a model of payments that values carbon sequestration in different restored ecosystems to develop long-term mitigation of climate change. In other words, that translates as managed rewiliding, and not neglecting swathes of our countryside.


“The Summit to Sea project will bring together one continuous nature-rich area, stretching from the Pumlumon massif—the highest area in mid Wales—down through wooded valleys to the Dyfi estuary and out into Cardigan bay. Within five years, it will comprise of at least 10,000 hectares of land and 28,400 hectares of sea.


We must do something and we must do it now. Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We are luckier than most in this country—Wales supports a large proportion of the UK population of many breeding and wintering bird species, for example, and, unlike England, we’re not killing one of our precious few native mammals en masse—badgers. However, we have witnessed dramatic declines too. The 2016 state of nature report indicates that one in 14 species in Wales are at risk of extinction and almost a third of birds here are declining significantly. Across the UK, 56 per cent of species have declined since 1970.


It’s not about the big ideas though; everyday, small changes are vital too. A few weeks ago, I met up with Pauline Hill, people and wildlife officer at the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales in Brecon, and we talked about three wildlife projects in Ystradgynlais at the hospital, the library and Penrhos allotments. The official scheme came to an end last year, but their legacy lives on in the community and through engagement, and gives environmental benefits. We can all do our bit, especially in the 1.4 per cent of Wales that’s defined as green urban space, parks and gardens. Those areas are vital for wildlife, not only for sustaining biodiversity, but as connectors to the 60 per cent of land that is framed, and the 35 per cent that is natural space—moors, forest, lake, grasslands, et cetera. I spent this morning on the roof of the Pierhead (building in Cardiff Bay), visiting the bees. They feed on  the wildlife-friendly areas planted in the local schools. It’s the same idea behind the Welsh Government’s green corridors initiative for trunk roads and motorways. But, as I said, 95 per cent of Wales is made up of farmland and natural land, so that’s where we can, and we must, make the biggest difference. And if we’re serious about using public money to deliver public good, rewilding is part of the big, bold and brave solution we need.”


Replying for the government, environment minister Lesley Griffiths said many farmers have made big commitments to protecting biodiversity, while not neglecting their food production role, and deserve praise and reward. She added:


“If we were to allow the Welsh countryside to develop through natural succession, it is likely this would turn large areas of Wales into woodland, and on the face of it, this could seem like an attractive idea – helping us to reach our woodland planting and climate change targets. However, many of our most threatened and priority habitats in Wales are not woodland, and rely on management through grazing, for example, to hold them in a more open condition, to allow their characteristic plant and animal species to thrive.”


Earlier, she announced more than £11 million for projects boosting biodiversity and green infrastructure, improving water quality and minimising the impact of wildfires. It includes £895,269 for Ceredigion Greenways Partnership, to create a new ‘Greenway’ along the Lampeter to Llangybi section of the disused Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway line.  The project will also improve access to a 325-acre community woodland.