Green Man spin-off falls apart, with Welsh Government left with £4.25m farm it doesn’t need
The Welsh Government has been left with egg on its face and a £4.25m farm it doesn’t need after it was forced to abandon a project linked to the Green Man Festival.
A controversial decision by Economy Minister Vaughan Gething to buy Gilestone Farm at Talybont-on-Usk in Powys has come unstuck because rare nesting birds have returned to the immediate area for the first time in hundreds of years.
In a written statement, Mr Gething said: “As stated on September 14, the Welsh Government was surprised and delighted to learn in August last year that a pair of ospreys had decided to nest on the Gilestone Farm site. Ospreys are a Schedule 1 species protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it is the first time they have been observed this far south in Wales in around 200 years.
“Given the historic significant of this development, the birds’ welfare and that of the nest are of course of paramount importance. To protect them, we ensured that initial surveillance and site security was installed at the site in partnership with local bird recorders.
“Last year we also appointed the UK’s leading expert on ospreys to undertake an ‘Osprey Conservation Plan’ for Gilestone Farm. This was to advise on how we can best manage the site going forward, alongside our continued ambitions for sustainable economic development, including the potential for rural tourism opportunities that support employment opportunities for young people.
“I received the expert adviser’s report in December and after taking its recommendations into consideration, and discussing these with the Leader of Powys and Green Man it is clear that the full commercial and charitable objectives of the Green Man Group, as set out in its business plan for the use of Gilestone Farm, can no longer be realised.
“This is because the report advises that a 750m restricted zone around the nest must be in place on the farm within which only very limited human activity can take place. Protecting the environment for the birds is and will remain paramount.
“As stated previously, the ambition set out in Green Man’s business plan represents a positive opportunity for jobs in and investment in rural Wales that matches the strategic priorities – agreed by the UK Government, Welsh Government and local authorities – in the Growing Mid Wales partnership action plan. The Partnership’s vision document sets Strategic Growth Priorities which include tourism, agriculture, food and drink, research and innovation, support for enterprise and skills and employment which are clearly aligned to the proposed areas of activity set out by Green Man to date.
“Green Man is a great commercial and cultural asset for Wales. The multi-award-winning, independent Welsh business, that is dedicated to sustainability, is a firm partner of the Welsh Government and we are excited about the opportunities we have to align the strength of their brand with an expanded business vision.
“We are committed to continuing our work with Green Man to help the company secure a suitable long-term base in Wales, where its strong potential can be realised; my officials will continue to work with them and our wider partners to help achieve this aim, just as we work with a broad range of other key Welsh and overseas investors in regions across Wales.
“It is important that investors feel confident about the Welsh Government’s determination to maximise the jobs and opportunities that can help rural communities thrive, especially those that enable more young people to plan a variety of ambitious futures closer to home – a core tenet of our Economic Mission. It is also important that investors can have confidence in the strength of that commitment when it is tested by aggressive lobbying efforts to change government policy.
“We are always willing to listen, but Welsh Ministers do not change decisions based on threats issued by third parties, including where attempts are made to raise matters that are entirely unrelated to the policy objectives in question. It is a matter of regret that discussions about Gilestone Farm have sometimes fallen into this category.
“It is equally disappointing that elected officials and business partners have been subject to sustained and personal attacks regarding this matter. As the First Minister has stated in the Senedd, the Welsh Government takes these matters very seriously and it is concerning that women in particular have borne the brunt of personal and abusive criticism that has no place in our society.
“The arrival of the ospreys, and the presence of their nest, is a hugely significant development from a nature perspective, but despite the exclusion zone now in place at Gilestone Farm, there still remain opportunities for sustainable farming and economic development at the site. We are engaging with relevant partner organisations around the potential to develop these opportunities for the longer term.
“While we undertake this work, we will continue to manage the farm appropriately. We are also extending the existing Farm Business Tenancy to allow conversations around future potential uses for the site to take place. The Welsh Government’s well-established principles for use and disposal of land and property assets will provide a basis for making decisions about the future of the farm.
“My officials are meeting with community representatives at Talybont-on-Usk to discuss the Osprey Conservation Plan and the next steps around the future management of the site.
“The known behaviour of ospreys is for them to return to the same nesting site they have selected and indeed to build their nest out further, and we expect the birds to return to Gilestone Farm during spring of this year. By then I am confident we will have agreed, with partners, a way forward for the site that can help realise the very special, sustainable economic benefits the ospreys potentially bring to the area.”
The farm is about seven miles from the Glan Usk estate near Crickhowell, where the festival has been held since 2003, attracting 25,000 visitors annually and generating more than £10m a year for the region’s economy.
While there were no plans to move the festival from its current location, Green Man owner Fiona Stewart devised a £23m plan to develop ancillary businesses including regenerative farming, glamping, small events and a bakery, brewery and baking school. The Welsh Government bought Gilestone Farm with the intention of leasing it to Green Man where the new activities would be based.
But local opponents as well as opposition politicians at the Senedd questioned Mr Gething’s judgement in buying the farm before a detailed business plan had been submitted. The issue created bitter divisions in the local community, with allegations of bullying and intimidation.
Then last year a pair of ospreys was observed nesting at Gilestone Farm – the first time anywhere in south Wales for centuries. The birds of prey are a protected species and after taking expert advice the Welsh Government has come to the conclusion that the uses planned for Gilestone Farm cannot go ahead. It’s considered likely that the Welsh Government will find it difficult to recover the purchase price of the farm if it puts it back on the market.
The birds made their nest at the farm in the Bannau Brycheiniog – formerly Brecon Beacons – National Park in early June 2023. In September they migrated to west Africa for winter and are considered likely to return to the nest this summer.
Both the birds and their nests are legally protected and can require significant exclusion zones to prevent disturbance from people. Ospreys were hunted to extinction in the UK in the 19th century. After being reintroduced and breeding in Scotland in the 1950s, they have spread southwards with about 250 pairs across the UK. The previous six breeding pairs in Wales have all been in the north of the country.
Last year Andrew King, Brecknock county bird recorder, told The Times it was “very exciting” that a young male osprey that had been “scoping out” the area for at least two years appeared to have chosen to breed there. He saw the birds building the nest from June to the start of September.
Mr King added: “It’s going to be very hard to hold public events near it.”
Tim Mackrill, a conservationist at Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation who has visited the nest, said: “That site now is really significant for the conservation of ospreys in Wales, because it is by far the most southerly site. They can cope with normal farming, but anything over and above that, there would have to be careful consideration.”
Fiona Stewart, managing director of Green Man Group, said the nest discovery was “incredible”, pointing out that the plans at the farm did not require new buildings. “This gives us the flexibility to adapt,” she said.
A Welsh Labour source told Nation.Cymru: “This is another nail in the coffin of Vaughan Gething’s leadership bid. Fresh off the back of the Unite stitch up and the disastrous news of Tata Steel in Port Talbot, we find under his watch the Welsh Government has spent more than £4m of public money on a farm with little to no commercial resale value.
“His civil servants spent so long dilly-dallying over the business deal and a couple of endangered birds have decided to migrate there. You couldn’t make it up.
“Next up is the Covid inquiry. Given Vaughan’s high visibility over the past few years, he really should have the leadership sewn up but it looks as if everything is left to play for. Jeremy Miles must be delighted.”
Managing Director of Green Man, Fiona Stewart, said: “While we are obviously disappointed that the project will not be going ahead at Gilestone Farm, we will now look at other opportunities.
“The team at Green Man extends its deepest gratitude to everyone who has supported the Gilestone Farm Project. The overwhelming response and the innovative ideas shared by the community have been nothing short of inspiring.
“Tackling the climate crisis, supporting Future Generations, and addressing the wealth and age gap remain critical issues in Mid Wales and we must ensure young people in rural areas are not forced to leave due to lack of work and social opportunities.”
James Gibson-Watt, Leader of Powys County Council, added: “While the news of the presence of the Osprey nest at Gilestone is exciting, losing a project with such economic, social and cultural potential is a great loss for Powys. Many in Talybont and our wider communities will be disappointed, especially those like me who wish to see enhanced opportunities for current and future generations of young people in Powys. The diversity of opportunities Green Man offered, would have helped address that.
“It is very regrettable that the bold and innovative decision of the Welsh Government to work with Green Man was met with such a negative and, at times, very divisive and polarising response from some people; but it was heartening to see that a significant proportion of people in the Talybont-on-Usk and wider area were very supportive of the aims of the project. I also pay tribute to Fiona Stewart and her team’s resilience in dealing with these issues.
“Green Man has a great ability to help us address the complex economic and social challenges found in Powys and indeed rural Wales in general. I very much hope that another location in Powys can be found to provide Green Man with a permanent base to progress its exciting plans, which fit so well with the type of sustainable economic development we so desperately need here in Mid Wales.”
Sophie Howe, Former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, said: “While I welcome the exciting news of the Osprey nest, it should not be at the cost of the incredible opportunity Green Man offers. To lose a project uniquely placed to address the increasing wealth and age gap issues which looms over rural Wales’ future would be a major loss for Wales. Creatives, farmers, tourism, climate change, regenerative food production, so many would gain especially the future generations of Wales. This can only be a delay until a new home can be found and the immense potential of Green Man can fully develop.”
Jane Tranter, Founder and CEO of Bad Wolf Studios, (Dr Who, His Dark Materials, The Winter King) said: “Green Man is an exceptional experience in beautiful Wales that thousands of people have enjoyed for a number of years. It has huge potential and we all hope it can now find a home that allows it to dynamically grow and diversify the brand along with the other creative industry successes here in Wales.”
Neil Startin, a Talybont Resident, said: “Many Talybont residents and others who live in Mid Wales will be very disappointed that Green Man will no longer be going to Gilestone Farm. Young people leave because they can’t afford to live here anymore and we don’t have sufficient opportunities here to convince them to stay. The jobs that are here can’t be filled because the working age folk have left.
“The opportunities in tourism, food & beverage, hospitality, creative industries, sustainable farming, science and events sounded great. We needed those jobs and training to encourage young people to stay. Working with Green Man was a really positive opportunity and that isn’t going to happen now.”
Iwan Rheon, Ambassador of the Green Man Trust Charity, and Welsh actor and musician (Game of Thrones, Misfits, Man Up), said: “The quality of training and showcase opportunities offered by Green Man are unmatched due to the skills and experience encapsulated within the organisation combined with the global respect Wales and Green Man is held in.
“Projects and partnerships were developing based on the opportunity of a permanent base which would have created jobs, training and supported climate change. A new location should be found as quickly as possible so those much needed opportunities are not lost to the people of Wales, and future generations.”
James Evans MS for Brecon & Radnorshire said: “I believe the purchase of Gilestone Farm by Welsh Government should never have happened in the first place. There were serious concerns raised about the appropriateness of this particular site and its suitability for the proposed use.
“All conversations I had on this topic, whether with elected officials, members of the community or at the public meeting I convened – all discussions were respectful of the opposing viewpoint and I have not witnessed any of the alleged inappropriate behaviour outlined in this statement. The lack of information from Welsh Government and lack of Community involvement throughout the whole process was extremely frustrating and I hope that lessons will be learnt in future developments that Welsh Government may wish to undertake.
“Conservation concerns were raised early on in this process, as were concerns about the purchase of the farm itself, and now the Labour Government finds itself holding an expensive asset for a purpose completely alien to their initial plan. The next time the Labour Government plans to get the cheque book out, they should listen to local concerns and conduct themselves with far greater transparency.”
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