Alongside WWRT’s ongoing practical improvement works, the Trust regularly responds to consultations where land-use change proposals are likely to have a detrimental impact on rivers, or where minor adjustments to proposals could be made to provide multi-benefits for the environment. This is not something we are funded to do, but believe it to be essential in preventing further declines to river health.
WWRT understands that as a country, Wales has a range of land use requirements, and as such, land use pressures will always exist. This includes forestry, which provides essential resources and is an important part of the Welsh economy. With this in mind, the Trust has concerns about the proliferation of applications for coniferous forestry plantations that have been proposed within West Wales in recent months and years.
Much of the West Wales river catchment is classified as an ‘At Risk’ or ‘Failing’ Acid Sensitive Area, which means that these regions are particularly sensitive to the effects of acid rain (Figure 1). Our greatest concerns lie with those coniferous plantations that are proposed and/or planted in these areas.Not all trees are the same, and the impacts of coniferous forestry plantations on acidification have been well researched and are commonly known. Conifer trees collect and concentrate acid rain from the surrounding atmosphere, passing it into soils. Because the underlying rocks and soils in much of the headwaters of Welsh streams, including the River Tywi, are base poor, there are only a very limited concentration of minerals containing the calcium and magnesium ions capable of neutralising the highly acidified water that accompanies high episodic flows following heavy rain. Fifty years of accumulating acidification has caused severe declines to some of our river ecosystems, such as the headwater tributaries of the River Tywi.
Figure 1. Acid sensitive areas in the West Wales river catchment
The most recent afforestation consultation which WWRT have responded to is situated in a ‘Failing’ Acid Sensitive catchment and only a few kilometres upstream from where both Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and WWRT have carried out monitoring programmes and found pH levels that are substantially below the minimum pH level of 5.5 needed to support salmonid populations and a multitude of other aquatic organisms. This specific planting location is also only a short distance from multiple sites where WWRT (with support from NRW) have been ‘liming’ the river channel and forestry road gullies, applying limestone sand and gravels in an attempt to raise pH levels and counteract the acidity. Whilst liming goes some way in addressing ongoing acidity levels, these applications are intended to be a temporary effort while land use change improvements are addressed. Plantations in locations such as these are therefore a further blow to our efforts to improve the long-term health of our river catchments.
As well as responding to individual consultations, we are also in the process of raising our concerns on the forestry application approval process with Natural Resources Wales and Welsh Government.
As the saying goes, ‘Right tree, right place’.