PLEASE APPRECIATE THAT I GET SENT MORE INFORMATION AND LEADS THAN I CAN USE. I TRY TO RESPOND TO EVERYONE WHO CONTACTS ME BUT I CANNOT POSSIBLY USE EVERY BIT OF INFORMATION I’M SENT. DIOLCH YN FAWR
This post is by Jon Coles, the Herald‘s Chief Writer, who has written about farming and rural affairs every week since the papers’ launch.
A CONTROVERSIAL project in Mid Wales faces opposition from local farmers and lost the support of a key local partner.
Summit to Sea’s website says: “The 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 at least 10,000 hectares of land and 28,400 hectares of sea.”
The project is seen as a pilot for similar projects being eyed in rural areas of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and partly reflects the Welsh Government’s controversial plans for favouring nebulous ‘public goods’ over food production.
‘NO TO REWILDING’
Drive towards Machynlleth from Talybont and signs in the roadside verges show opposition to the project growing the further north you go. Most say: ‘No to Rewilding’. There are few signs of any overt support.
A meeting of 150 local farmers in Talybont earlier this year rejected the project.
Just outside Machynlleth a particularly large sign rejecting rewilding underlines the farmers’ opposition.
Once a market town for the livestock and wool trade, Machynlleth is now a prosperous exclave of bohemian incomers and boutique shopping in mid-Wales. The town’s centre supports a large Aga showroom, an old-fashioned cobbler making hand-made shoes, a variety of artisanal boutiques, antique shops, and no banks.
It is there that the ideas underpinning rewilding in the UK were, if not born, then first brought to the wider public’s attention.
George Monbiot is a trenchant critic of modern farming and has opined at length on what he claims is the adverse impact of sheep farming on the Welsh upland landscape. Mr Monbiot formerly resided near Machynlleth before returning to live in his native Oxfordshire some years ago.
In his book Feral, a seminal text for the rewilding movement in the UK, George Monbiot says: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”
Rewilding Britain is the principal partner for the Summit to Sea project.
The chief executive of Rewilding Britain is Rebecca Wrigley. Ms Wrigley is the partner of journalist and author George Monbiot.
The application for grant support for Summit to the Sea has a return address which is the couple’s home in Oxford.
To its critics, rewilding is a fad supported by metropolitan eco-warriors with nothing better to do with their time than dream of romantic rural idylls that never existed. Its supporters regard it as a means of restoring diversity and improving natural habitats.
Rewilding is so divisive a topic that even those sympathetic to its aims express caution about where it might lead and where the quest for creating an ‘authentic’ habitat stops.
A rewilding exercise in the Netherlands, at Oostvaardersplassen near Amsterdam, was so badly misjudged and went so catastrophically wrong that 3,000 horses, deer and cattle did not survive the winter of 2017. Starving animals were shot by Dutch officials to ease overpopulation and prevent the destruction of the forested habitats on which many of the species depend.
Some argue that rewilding is the creation of ecosystems where human influences and control over vast areas of land are removed, and species such as large predators create self-regulating environments devoid of human interactions.
Others argue that rewilding is merely a new and exciting approach to conservation.
Rural Wales is, however, a working environment. Its landscape is intimately entwined with humans’ interactions with it, as users and exploiters of the land and conservers of it. While reintroducing apex predators like wolves and lynx is unlikely, significant concern exists that ‘rewilders’ oppose farming as being itself ‘a bad thing’.
SUMMIT TO SEA ‘NOT ABOUT REWILDING’
In spite of Rewilding Britain’s status as the Summit to Sea project’s lead partner, a spokesperson for the latter denied that the project’s primary purpose was rewilding.
They told us: “Summit to Sea was never meant to be a large-scale rewilding project, but instead is a wider initiative to bring positive change to both Mid Wales’ environment and economy. Exactly how the project looks will be shaped entirely by the community.
“Over the coming weeks, a recently appointed Community Engagement Officer will host one-to-one meetings and drop-in sessions with those who’d like to be involved to hear their visions for the area’s future. This could involve anything from working with communities to develop nature-based businesses that are socially and economically beneficial, to working with farmers to develop ideas for land management”.
However, the project has caused alarm that ‘rewilding’ is the first step towards the outside appropriation of Welsh land to rid the area of farming and create a playground for English and urban visitors.
Speaking in 2018, Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) President Glyn Roberts said: “A key driving force behind such pressures and policies is the belief that farming is somehow inherently bad, with negative messages drip-fed through the media by charities until they are accepted as universal truths – often conveniently drawing attention away from disastrous policies advocated by charities and introduced by successive Governments.”
LACK OF LOCAL ENGAGEMENT
Criticism that Summit to Sea has failed to reach out to local farmers and engage with local culture sensitively reached a head towards the end of the summer. Ecodyfi, a not for profit Development Trust which aims to deliver sustainable community regeneration in the Dyfi Valley, withdrew its support from Summit to Sea earlier this year.
Speaking to the media in September, Ecodyfi manager Andy Rowland said: “We have increasingly been disturbed by the change of attitude to the project in the farming-connected community on which we largely depend.
“The project reflects the partners’ focus on the environment and pays much less attention to the cultural/linguistic/social and economic aspects of sustainable development, which are fundamental to the whole community.
“We feel that in present circumstances Ecodyfi can best help the creation of a more resilient and sustainable future by being outside the project rather than by staying within it.”
Responding, Nick Fenwick, Head of Policy at the FUW said: “We welcome the fact that Ecodyfi has recognised the damage done to their relationship with the local community through their involvement with Rewilding Britain.
“Their acknowledgement that the project does not pay sufficient attention to the ‘cultural, linguistic, social and economic aspects of sustainable development which are fundamental to the whole community’ is also welcome.”
FARMERS ‘MISUNDERSTAND’ PROJECT
Speaking at the time of Ecodyfi’s announcement, the Chief Executive of Summit to Sea said farmers had ‘misunderstood’ the scheme.
Melanie Newton also told the BBC: “It’s not about rewilding, it’s actually about looking at landscape sustainability and how that sits with traditional farming practices and how they can all support each other – they can sit side by side.”
We asked Summit to Sea whether it thought to say that farmers misunderstood the project insulted the intelligence of those upon whose support it relied to deliver its scheme.
A spokesperson told us: “There has been a lot of information in circulation during the last year or so, some of which has been false or misconstrued. We also recognise that in some cases, communication on our part hasn’t been as clear as we would have liked.
“Feedback from community members so far has been vital in terms of how the project is shaped and adapted, and we are now working hard to strengthen our lines of communication with local people so that we can continue to develop a project which benefits both wildlife and people.”
Nick Fenwick of the FUW was not mollified by that explanation. He told us: “Farmers have certainly not ‘misunderstood’ the project: Far from it, they have recognised it for what it truly is, and know perfectly well that the claim that ‘It’s not about rewilding’ is laughable.
“The project is instigated and run by Rewilding Britain, an organisation which advocates the rewilding of a quarter of Great Britain. Their website acknowledges that the organisation was inspired by George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’, which advocates the replacement of traditional farming with wilding in the very area selected for the Summit to Sea project.”
We finally asked Summit to Sea to identify substantial locally-based or Welsh-based farming groups which supports its objectives.
Summit to Sea referred to the eight project partners engaged in the project and responded: “There are eight project partners who are keen to meet with groups including FUW and NFU Cymru to discuss how all organisations can move forward together to help create an environmental and economically prosperous future for everyone.”
Those partners, apart from Rewilding Britain, are Marine Conservation Society (MCS), Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust (MWT), PLAS Marine Special Area of Conservation, RSPB, Coetir Anian (a style of the Wales Wild Land Foundation CIO, which promotes rewilding), Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and WWF.
♦ end ♦
Jac chips in . . . An excellent piece by Jon Coles (I would expect no less) that exposes the many contradictions, and worse, in this project.
I became aware of Summit to Sea last year and it featured in The Green Menace (28 August). I wrote, “One shadowy re-wilding project about which I and others are having difficulty getting information is ‘Summit to Shore’”. A later piece was The Welsh Clearances in October, with a further mention here at the end of that month.
I may have got the name wrong to begin with, but this was not surprising seeing as there was so little information in the public domain, and no local consultations. Or let me qualify that by saying that no contact had been made with those whose land was being eyed up for takeover.
Gradually, more information seeped out, but it wasn’t encouraging. Just listen to Natalie Buttriss, the Director of Wales for the Woodland Trust, a partner in the Summit to Sea rewilding project, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’ programme last October.
When dealing with surly natives Ms Buttriss clearly favours the, ‘You can like it or lump it’ approach.
And yet, despite being furtive wee creatures in the area affected, those behind Summit to Sea are not shy of publicity. Below we see Buttriss presenting a petition (for more trees) to London’s management team in Corruption Bay, represented by Plasmarl boy, Mike Hedges AM.
Monbiot and his friends know little about the land they want to seize, but they know how to get things done. For Labour’s buffoons down Cardiff docks are like putty in the hands of members of the English middle classes.
After suitable kneading, the men (and women) of clay promised to withdraw funding from farmers after Brexit with the intention of thereby making land available for Monbiot and his gang.
Summit to Sea reminds us how vulnerable Cardiff Bay is to pressure from special interest groups, usually from outside of Wales and often acting against the Welsh national interest.
This colonialist variant of devolution is why we have a third sector profiting from the deprivation and hopelessness it encourages, and why the ‘Welsh Government’ refuses to consider a register of lobbyists.
Let’s end back in Holland, at Oostvaardersplassen. (And try saying that after a bottle of Malbec!) As the Guardian put it: “For protesters, Oostvaardersplassen is a secretive experiment devised by distrusted elites”.
Just add ‘alien’ and it applies perfectly to Summit to Sea. But why stop there! Wales itself is run by ‘distrusted alien elites’. Thank God more of you are waking up to that fact.