WELSH hill farmers could find themselves for the first time footing the bill for repairing hundreds of miles of forestry fences, claims Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew R T Davies.
This follows Natural Resources Wales’ (NRW) confirmation that the so-called “hill farming agreement” is no longer in place in some parts of the country, he believes. For many years, the Forestry Commission (now NRW) took financial responsibility for the maintenance of fences which separate its woodland from farmland, but that could now be set to change.
The concerns were uncovered after Mr Davies took up the case of a farmer who runs a beef and sheep enterprise in the Coed y Cymoedd forest district in the South Wales Valleys. In this case, remedial work had historically been undertaken by the Forestry Commission under a “good neighbour” policy but the agreement ended in around 2013 due to local budgetary constraints forcing NRW to target their resources on land in which they have a legal obligation to maintain boundaries.
Mr Davies has previously described the Welsh Government’s unprecedented cut of almost 20 per cent to the rural affairs budget as “evidence of the contempt in which Labour holds the countryside and agriculture”.
He has now urged NRW to enter into dialogue with landowners and farmers to ensure generations of goodwill are not lost. He said: “Whilst I accept that constraints in public spending will have an effect on the capacity of NRW to undertake its work, this change in policy could lead to an atmosphere of confrontation where goodwill previously existed. “The absence of a clear and consistent national approach to the Hill Farming Agreement by NRW is also of concern, and it may be that there is a role for the Minister to play in moderating any discussions between the body and the farming unions or land owners.
“In reality though, the savage cuts to the rural affairs budget by the Welsh Government are evidence of the contempt in which Labour holds the countryside and agriculture. “It, therefore, falls to NRW to bring take forward an open and honest dialogue with farmers to ensure that good relationships, built across generations, are not blown away in the wind.”
According to Mr Davies, a letter he received from NRW’s head of operations for South East Wales confirmed the regional change in policy, whilst affirming the responsibility of landowners to maintain their boundaries under the 1971 Animals Act. The letter states: “Clearly, where covenants within our deeds indicate that we are responsible, we will honour our obligations.
However, where our deeds remain silent on the matter, as in this case, then we will not assume responsibility. “In such areas we will rely on the third party land owner/occupier to fulfil their legal responsibilities under the Animals Act 1971 which requires owners to safeguard their livestock.”
The letter also suggested that the policy is under review at a national level, with changes likely to follow in other regions. It adds: “The decision to cease paying for third party fencing was made within the Coed y Cymoedd Forest District and communicated to the two farming unions in Wales at the time. “Other Forest Districts in Wales are moving in this direction although the others have not yet been as badly affected by tree disease which has led to an increase in the fencing programme in Coed y Cymoedd.”