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Welsh farmers consider action as protests erupt across Europe

11 Feb 2024 6 minute read
Farmers protesting in Brussels. Photo via YouTube

Luke James, Brussels

Welsh farmers were keeping a close eye on events in Brussels as they gathered for crisis talks last week.

While they shared concerns over the future of their industry at the livestock market in Welshpool, farmers from Belgium and beyond blocked the roads around the European institutions with over 1,000 tractors.

“There was certainly a feeling of, well, why can’t we do what farmers are doing on the continent,” said Gareth Parry, a Farmers’ Union of Wales representative who was at the meeting in a personal capacity.

The disruption of an EU leaders’ summit over the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was part of a wave of action that began in the Netherlands before spreading to France, Germany, Poland, and, perhaps soon, Wales.

Sustainable Farming Scheme

Welsh farmers’ main concern is now no longer being eligible for the CAP at all and the uncertainty caused by the switch to the Welsh government’s Sustainable Farming Scheme.

“One of the key differences is that EU money that went towards agriculture was ringfenced,” added Parry. “We have not got that financial certainty anymore. There is nothing stopping the Welsh Government putting our funding into the NHS, transport, or education.”

But there are still plenty of parallels between the grievances felt by farmers in Wales and the rest of Europe.

The spark for the movement was Dutch government plans to clamp down on nitrogen emissions caused by livestock manure and chemical fertilisers.

“There have been some quite rigid rules placed on the livestock sector in particular,” said Dr Prysor Williams of Bangor University.

“Ultimately it boils down to a drive to reduce the number of cattle as a result of concerns over phosphate and nitrate.

“If we were to bring it closer to home, there’s a lot of discontent that the whole of Wales is now what we call a ‘nitrate vulnerable zone’.

“There’s a limit on the amount of nitrogen excreted per hectare, per year. So essentially it’s also a cap on livestock.”


In Germany, the protests were caused by the end of subsidies for agriculture diesel. In France, tax increases on pesticides. And in Poland, the import of tariff-free produce from Ukraine.

The common thread for these disparate issues: the challenge of maintaining food security at the same time as tackling climate change.

“Farmers in the EU have been under increasing pressure due to the regulatory environment,” said Robin Manning, who represents NFU Cymru members in Brussels as director of the British Agriculture Bureau.

“Most prominently in the EU, the introduction of the so-called Green Deal farm to fork policy, which includes a lot of environmental legislation that will impact on profitability.

“The last thing people want to see is production threatened in the EU and the UK and that simply replaced by products from elsewhere which don’t comply with the same standards.”

Farmers in the EU now need to meet a set of nine environmental criteria to continue receiving CAP funding.

Non-productive areas

Among the most contentious has been the requirement to set aside at least 4 per cent of land to “non-productive areas or features such as hedges or trees.”

In Wales, 10 per cent of land will need to be planted with trees for farmers to qualify for support under the Sustainable Farming Scheme.

“Whether you’re in the CAP or out of the CAP, there’s the same types of concerns about the increasingly stringent environmental concerns that farmers have to meet,” added Dr Williams.

“It’s just that I would say, in Wales, the amount of change that we might see compared to the change we would have seen if we were still under CAP is on a different level.”

The Welsh target of 10 per cent tree planting is the minimum required to recover biodiversity lost through intensive farming, according to the European Environment Bureau.

“The intensification of agriculture, encouraged by CAP subsidies, has led to the removal of natural habitats in the farmed landscape: hedgerows, flower strips, field margins, small wetlands and fallow land,” it has said.

The Welsh Government also says it needs to increase its annual tree planting by 15 times in order to meet its climate commitments.

The policy has become a “convenient pantomime villain”, Climate Change minister Lee Waters has said.

“There’s a lot of anxiety from farming communities about change, but we’re romanticising the present; your average farm income with EU subsidies is £16,000 per farm,” he previously told Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement programme.

“We’ve been subsidising farmers into working poverty and properly managed tree-planting alongside food production offers a new income stream.”

Climate change

Welsh farmers are conscious of the need to tackle climate change and the new scheme would provide welcome additional income to some businesses, such as hill farms, according to Gareth Parry of the FUW.

“Every single farm is different. There will be some farmers who are able to plant trees to reach the 10 per cent target.”

But he warned: “There will be some more intensive dairy farms who basically won’t go into the scheme full stop because of the loss in asset value of land and loss of production.

“The scheme in its current form will never compensate for those losses. If the business can’t be financially viable, they can’t expect farmers to deliver on their environmental objectives. That’s where there is that disconnect at the moment.”

The European Commission announced a one year derogation from its tree planting targets in response to the protests in Brussels.

The Welsh Government is currently consulting on its plans and Rural Affairs minister Lesley Griffiths told the Senedd last month she had not pre-empted the outcome of the process.

“Do I think some of the proposals will have to be changed? Yes, of course I think that – there’s no point having a consultation if you don’t listen to it,” the Wrexham MS told BBC Wales this week.

That has been enough to stop the immediate threat of a continental-style protest in Cardiff.

At a meeting of 3,000 farmers at the Carmarthen Showground on Thursday, it was agreed that the organisers would first seek a meeting with the Welsh Government.

But the biggest cheer of the night was for the speech by Gary Howells, a livestock farmer from Llandysul, who said a protest is still “on the table.”

Speaking with his son in his arms, he said: “We will fight to the bitter end. We will take the message to Cardiff and we’ll all go together.”

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
4 months ago

One pantomime villain identifies another…

David Smith
David Smith
4 months ago

They may well be watching with interest yet hopefully reflecting on why they voted for the Brexit disaster.

Iago Traferth
Iago Traferth
4 months ago
Reply to  David Smith

Absolutely, farmers in Europe have far fewer problems.

4 months ago

To complain about not having the ” financial certainty ” of EU money, when field after field I passed while visiting family in Powys from RCT, contained huge vote leave and Brexit banners fixed to bails of silage and hay, is just staggering. You won, you got what you wanted, now you’re complaining about it, it’s about time these people started to accept what they voted for, they were warned, so, you feel hard done by, so do I, with my freedom of movement taken from me. Stop now.

Emma Catherwood
Emma Catherwood
4 months ago
Reply to  Gareth

How long did you live and work in the EU and what did you do?

4 months ago

I have a touring caravan, and spent several months a year every year for 7 years touring France and northern Spain, that has now been denied me. 2 of my daughters worked in France, St Malo, and Spain, Benidirm for a year and 3 years respectively, a niece also lived and worked in Bonneval- sur- arc , France for 3 years.These are now things denied me and my family, and to hear the people who won , now crying is annoying.

4 months ago

Gareth Parry, a Farmers’ Union of Wales worries post Brexit that “there is nothing stopping the Welsh Government putting our funding into the NHS, transport, or education.” Sorry but your members voted for Brexit and is Mr Parry saying that the elected representatives for Wales should not be able to decide where our money goes, as long as farmers keep having the exact same amount of money that they received under the EU, which they wanted to leave!

4 months ago

What gets my goat is, that the loudest most vociferous groups now moaning, are the groups that campaigned for Brexit the loudest. Fishermen on the Thames, tractors being driven in Westminster, places like NPT festooned with UKIP and Brexit banners, recently the Daily Mail, arch Brexiteers, complained we are being punished for not being included in the new EU high speed train links across Europe, you lot are a joke, my grandchildren will miss out on the freedoms I and my children had, but you lot moan about winning.

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