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Farmers are being warned not to jeopardise European subsidy payments or face heavy court fines by cutting down too many trees on their land.
Over the past two years, six cases of suspected deforestation involving farmers have been investigated.
The trend has prompted a call for farmers to steer clear of trouble by checking with Forestry Commission Wales that any plans to remove trees do not fall foul of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Forestry Regulations.
The Regulations set limits on the cumulative amount of land that can be cleared of trees over a five-year period and are in addition to the rules laid out in the Forestry Act.
Breaching the Act or the EIA Regulations can lead to prosecution and a hefty fine, along with an order forcing the landowner to restore the land with more trees.
It could also result in a cross compliance penalty in a landowner’s Single Payment Scheme, which sets environmental and other standards that farmers must adhere to in order to receive European agricultural subsidies.
Richard Siddons, Forestry Commission Wales Head of Forest Services Wales, said, “In the most recent case in south Wales, the farmer was unaware of the requirements of both the Forestry Act and the EIA Forestry Regulations.
“We want to make landowners and farmers aware of the legislation surrounding tree felling and deforestation operations, plus the need to obtain a felling licence and/or a screening decision from us before starting any work.
“The Welsh Government’s Woodlands for Wales strategy recognises the value of trees in rural and semi-urban locations and we want to ensure that the environmental benefits of trees and the correct administration processes are taken into account.”
The EIA Regulations allow for some deforestation – so long as all other necessary approvals are in place – but set a maximum threshold on any gradual felling in an area over a five-year period.
Deforestation thresholds are 0.5 hectare where any part of the land is in a National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and one hectare elsewhere.
“Where either of these thresholds are likely to be exceeded, then the landowner should contact Forestry Commission Wales for a decision on whether it’s safe to proceed,” said Richard.
“Failure to do so could constitute a breach of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition requirements which, if proven, could result in severe financial repercussions.”
The level of a Single Payment Scheme penalty is determined by the "extent, intent, severity and permanence" of a breach, and failure to rectify a known breach or repetition of breaches can significantly increase the penalty.
The Regulations do not apply to activities requiring planning permission, which are governed by the Town and Country Planning Act.
Kathleen Carroll, Wildlife Advisor in the Welsh Government Sustainability and Environmental Evidence Division, said, “If you are unsure as to whether a particular activity you are planning falls within either the uncultivated land and semi-natural areas EIA Agricultural Regulations or the EIA Forestry Regulations, then please contact your nearest Divisional Office to obtain a screening decision.”
Advice can also be gained from Forestry Commission Wales by calling the Grants and Regulations team on 0300 068 0300 and asking for your local Regulatory Woodland Officer, or visit the Forestry Commission Wales website at http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-6j2jjn (English) or http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-6J2MG2 (Welsh).
Caption: Illegally felled trees next to a field of grazing sheep. Farmers are being urged to check before cutting down trees or risk severe penalties.
Press office contact: Clive Davies on 0300 068 0061, mobile 07788 190922, email email@example.com