Welsh Government must act quickly to protect our communities and wildlife

by Glyn Roberts, FUW President

IN the April edition of Y Tir I wrote about members’ widespread concerns over the risk to rural areas posed by those visiting the countryside and using rights of way at a time when the coronavirus was spreading rapidly within communities, hospitals and care homes.

We now know that, in the context of Great Britain, the Welsh Government performed well in terms of introducing controls that saved lives, with standardised Office for National Statistics data showing Welsh excess mortality rates by the Week ending May 2 9 2 0 2 0 to be just over a third of the rates in England, and around half the rate of Scotland.

However, comparisons with other European countries paint a less rosy picture: Welsh excess mortality rates for the same period are the fifth highest in a league table of 2 3 European countries in which England takes the lead.

Thankfully, most of Wales’ rural and farming communities have been relatively untouched by the virus, but we shouldn’t forget that many farming families in other areas have not been so lucky, and far from being a source of comfort, the low levels of disease in rural communities potentially leaves us more exposed, not only because we have not attained a degree of so called ‘herd immunity’, but also because it leaves us complacent.

In fact, for understandable reasons, many have come to regard the disease as an almost uniquely urban phenomena, to the extent that while we remain extremely concerned about the risk posed by hordes of tourists now wandering our streets and countryside, our guards have come down completely when interacting with those from our own community.

One example of this is how we behave in our livestock markets, with many slipping back to their old habits when coming into contact with others.

Perhaps the risk is lower in our rural markets than in some of the scenes that have attracted so much media attention, such as the street parties and overcrowded pubs, but one infectious person in any crowded environment where social distancing rules are being ignored risks spreading the disease to scores, or even hundreds of others. And let’s be honest, the age profile of our industry means many attending the local mart are firmly in the high‐risk category.

For those looking from the outside, it makes no difference whether it is a livestock market full of rural people or a pub in a city centre: If coronavirus rules are being ignored it

represents a risk, and there is ultimately the possibility that the venue will be forced to close down ‐ something that, aside from the essential need to protect our communities from the virus, we cannot afford to let happen to our marts at this important time of year for trading.

Nevertheless, the fear of contracting the virus from visitors from areas where the disease is more prevalent is logical, and as lockdown restrictions have eased, and people have chosen not to take their usual foreign holidays, the numbers visiting parts of Wales has reached unprecedented levels, leading to chaos in many rural communities and prompting politicians to call on the Welsh Government to intervene.

The situation stands in stark contrast to that at the beginning of the lockdown, when the ban on travelling led to tourism businesses ‐ including many run by FUW members ‐ losing vast sums of money, highlighting the importance of the tourism industry to our economy.

Yet it’s clear that a balance needs to be struck for a range of reasons, and a recently published report by Snowdonia National Park, National Trust and Natural Resources Wales makes it clear that protecting wildlife is amongst those reasons.

The Wildlife in Lockdown report considers the results of a three‐week study of wildlife on Snowdon, Cader Idris and the Carneddau, and in Cwm Idwal, Coed y Brenin, Ceunant Llennyrch and Niwbwrch/Llanddwyn during June, when visitors were effectively banned from visiting these popular areas.

Not surprisingly, the study found that wildlife flourished during the lockdown due to fewer disturbances and less litter, with birds such as meadow pipit and wheatear in far greater abundance around paths and common sandpiper and ring ouzel nesting close to what are usually busy areas they choose to avoid.

The study also suggests that less litter and picnic leftovers led to fewer predator species such as herring gulls and foxes being attracted to potential nesting areas, giving breeding birds an additional helping hand during their most important time of year.

Such findings come as no surprise, and it’s clear that parts of Wales have not only reached visitor saturation point but gone well past it, causing all sorts of damage.

Yet the Welsh Government is not only oblivious to such problems but is actively pursuing policies that will make

matters worse: Their Access Reform Programme aims to ‘boost Wales as a tourism destination and a magnet for walkers, cyclists and thrill‐seekers’ by allowing mountain bikes and horse riders to use public footpaths; hang‐gliding and para‐gliding on open access land; swimming and canoeing on rivers and lakes; and extending open access to coast and cliffs.

One of the intentions of the programme is to improve the health of Welsh citizens by encouraging exercise ‐ yet as the FUW pointed out in evidence submitted to the Welsh Government in July, a threefold increase in access rights since 1998 and the opening of 4,700 miles of rights of way under improvement plans has had no noticeable impact on standards of health in Wales, and levels of obesity have actually increased.

It seems no coincidence that the types of activity the Welsh Government wants to facilitate through such reforms are most popular amongst the urban middle classes, while the intention of allowing such access ‘as of right’ and therefore for free takes no account of the true cost to our wildlife and those who live and work in the countryside.

Alongside such concerns are the social and cultural impacts of tourism, and while the conversion of houses and buildings to holiday accommodation provides important and much needed income for many farming families, as an increasing proportion of our housing is taken out of local circulation and given over to self‐catering accommodation and second home ownership, the availability of homes for our rural families falls, and the rents and costs of what is left becomes increasingly beyond the reach of those on rural incomes.

In a recent letter to Lesley Griffiths I highlighted the need for Welsh Government to take action to address this issue ‐ not least given that such negative impacts are likely to go through the roof in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as huge numbers of people seek to escape, permanently or temporarily, from their urban environments.

Politicians from across the political spectrum have for decades used tourism as an easy ‘go‐to’ solution which allows them to avoid tackling far more difficult and complex issues relating to indigenous industries such as farming, and the numerous references to income from tourism in the Sustainable Farming and our Land proposals continue in this tradition.

Yet the evidence of the damage done when the scales are tipped too far is now clearer than ever, and the Welsh Government must act quickly to correct this and protect our communities and wildlife.

Mae’r erthyg l yma yn Gymraeg ar wefan yr FUW ‐ Newyd d ion ‐ Newyd d ion Y Tir: “Rhaid i Lywod raeth Cymru weithred u’n g yflym i d d iog elu ein cymuned au a’n bywyd g wyllt.”

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