Protecting water and soil through farming and sustainable land management

Why this theme?

Here’s a statistic for you – almost 60% of North East Wales is classified as enclosed farmland, making it the most dominant type of habitat in the region. Of the remainder, 15% comes under woodland, with mountains, moorland and heath accounting for 10% and urban areas 8%, the latter being 2% above the national figure.

Right now, the land managers of this broad range of habitats have an opportunity to consider how the sustainable management of natural resources can improve our ‘ecosystem services’ – the many and varied benefits that we get from the natural environment and healthy ecosystems. These include food, clean water and air along with other regulatory, cultural and supporting services such as carbon storage, recreational opportunities and biodiversity enhancement. By working together to manage the land sustainably, we can maintain and improve the services that nature provides us.

This theme in the Area Statement covers the broad range of habitats found across North East Wales and is not specifically related to agriculture. At our engagement events, the subject was discussed under several different guises including sustainable land management, protecting our soil and water, landscape scale (widely regarded as a broader, holistic approach to land management) and agriculture. Initially, the umbrella term of ‘sustainable land management’ was chosen, with the word ‘farming’ being added following input at an engagement event in July 2019. Farming is, after all, the bedrock to a resilient food production industry in Wales, something many felt needed stressing.

Everyone attending our engagement events agreed that we should all be working together to ensure that the environment can become an important part of the farming business. That, in turn, should pave the way for a sustainable food production industry and other associated benefits such as a thriving wildlife and improved access to our treasured landscapes. However, it was acknowledged that we still have some way to go before we identify how best to achieve this.

This theme helps to deliver against the following Natural Resources Policy (NRP) priorities:

Reverse the decline in biodiversity and develop resilient ecological networks

In the State of Nature report 2019, it was revealed that wildlife in Wales continues to decline, with 17% of species at risk of extinction. Since the 1970s, butterflies and moths have suffered a 52% decline in Wales. Our arable-associated flora is at the top when it comes to the most threatened group of plants in the UK, with 54 species considered rare or threatened and seven extinct. The total length of hedgerows in Wales has been estimated at 106,000 kilometres. However, 78% of that is classified as being in unfavourable condition.

Maintain productive capacity by improving soil quality

The annual cost of soil degradation in England and Wales is an estimated £1.2 billion, according to research published by Cranfield University in 2015. This is mainly linked to loss of organic content of soils (47% of the total cost), compaction (39%) and erosion (12%). Farmers manage 60% of the land in North East Wales. Poor quality soil affects their income and way of life. Some land managers don’t believe that they have soil erosion problems. However, low-level loss of soil and damage to soil structure may be occurring which have long-term consequences regarding sustainability, productivity, profitability and the environment. The loss of soil on a farm can also have undesirable impacts such as collecting on roads and neighbouring properties, entering watercourses and smothering riverbed gravels, causing nutrient enrichment. It’s worth noting that this is not only related to farmland but also forestry operations, together with other land uses. Compaction and the ‘sealing’ of urban soil can also lead to surface water flooding issues for our communities.

Reduce pollution levels in our air and enhance air quality

According to the Department of Environment Food & Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) Clean Air Strategy 2019, the agricultural sector accounts for 88% of the UK’s ammonia emissions, something that occurs during the storage and spreading of manures and slurries along with the application of inorganic fertilisers. Ammonia damages sensitive natural habitats and contributes to particulate pollution in urban areas.

Improve the quality, and ensure the quantity, of our water

In North East Wales, two main catchments dominate – the River Clwyd and the River Dee. Most of the River Clwyd catchment is within North East Wales with one major tributary, the River Elwy, lying mainly in Natural Resources Wales’ (NRW) North West area. The upper Dee also stretches into the North West area, with the lower catchment flowing over the English border into the Cheshire Plain and the Dee estuary.

Nearly three million people get their drinking water from the Dee, many of them living in North West England. The strategic importance of the Dee as a potable water source, and the risk posed to it from pollution, has led to the river becoming one of the most protected in Europe and, as of 1999, a designated Water Protection Zone.

The Clwyd has its headwaters in Clocaeonog Forest, while the Elwy rises to the west on the Denbigh Moors. Agriculture dominates the largely rural Clwyd catchment. Part of the lower catchment is a nitrate vulnerable zone for both surface and groundwater. In 2015, 68% of all freshwater water bodies (as defined by the Water Framework Directive) were not achieving good or better overall status in North East Wales. Contributory factors included:

  • Physical modification, responsible for 22% of failures due to pressures such as barriers to fish migration (eg weirs)

  • Pollution from sewage and wastewater, responsible for 22% of failures

  • Pollution from rural areas (including land management practices as well as impacts from other uses, for instance horses/stables, golf courses), responsible for 24% of failures

  • Pollution from towns, cities and transport, responsible for 8% of failures

  • Pollution from mines, responsible for 6% of failures

NRW has been working closely (and will continue to do so) with our stakeholders including Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water and farmers in the Clwyd catchment to ensure that our bathing waters at Rhyl and Prestatyn achieve sufficient, good or excellent status. We will continue to seek funding and liaise with partners to deliver schemes that reduce bacteriological inputs in the catchment. Dwr Cymru has designated the Clwyd catchment as a Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR) pilot and wants to work collaboratively to deliver environmental improvements along with health and well-being benefits.

a salmon fisherman casting on river

Ensure healthy populations of fish

The link between land and soil management and healthy fish populations may, at first, seem vague. Nonetheless, the management of soils can directly impact upon the life cycle of many species found in our streams and rivers. Salmon and trout, for instance, require clean, oxygenated gravels to spawn. Water must pass through gravel so that eggs can breathe. Soils and silt can smoother eggs or make gravels unsuitable for spawning.

Safeguarding and increasing carbon stores in soils and biomass

According to The State of the Environment Soil Report, published by the Environment Agency in 2019, the UK’s soil contains around 10 billion tonnes of carbon, roughly equal to 80 years of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Farming is already responsible for a critical carbon resource in soils, wooded landscape and semi-natural habitats. By improving our land management and changing land use, we can not only capture more carbon but also conserve and enhance what is already there. Ways of doing this include bigger hedgerows, additional woodland and more carbon-rich soils.

Climate change adaptation

The National Farmers’ Union has set the ambitious goal of reaching zero greenhouse gas emissions across Welsh and English agriculture by 2040. According to the NFU, agriculture – and the land-based economy – can play a key role tackling climate change, being uniquely placed to capture the major greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) from the air and turn it, with the help of farmers, into a wide range of foods, fibres and fuels. By enhancing this ability to capture carbon, we can use it to generate ‘negative emissions’, actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and balancing agriculture’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions from food production.

What would success look like?

We need to balance the many challenges and competing uses that our landscapes face. An integrated approach can, ideally, create space for all our ecosystem services.

Throughout our engagement, participants found it difficult to develop projects with long-term outcomes, hence a lack of clear actions emerging to take forward. Hopefully the Area Statements process will address this. We need to continue building trust and developing new ways of working, fostering relationships and generating a combined effort which will pave the way for the following opportunities:

A post-Brexit agri-environment scheme

As a principal advisor to the Welsh Government, NRW will inform Area Statement discussions surrounding a post-Brexit agri-environment scheme and the desire for it to offer flexible opportunities to local priorities. These will be priorities that recognise (a) local differences and requirements across sectors and places, and (b) the need to support the delivery of public good services, such as natural flood management aimed at reducing the risk of flooding or coastal erosion, through payments.

Clwyd Forum

The Area Statement will seek opinions on the formation of a Clwyd Forum, aimed at promoting the sustainable management of the Clwyd catchment through holistic, integrated management and planning. The Forum would include a broad range of stakeholders working at strategic and project levels in order to achieve tangible benefits, in line with the Area Statement’s priorities.

Delivering evidence-led opportunities

The Area Statement will be evidence-led, making information that we hold and receive available to interested parties. The Area Statement will also promote an accurate, balanced picture of all land management within North East Wales, as well as being ‘solution focused’.

Building trust and lasting relationships

The Area Statement will continue to build trust by forging lasting relationships, with stakeholders bringing a broad range of experiences to the table extending beyond the more conventional land management interests.

Farm clusters

The Area Statement will support the creation of ‘farm clusters’ aimed at helping land managers decide how best to farm sustainably, while also earning a healthy return. Collaboration between neighbouring farms could also be encouraged, promoting the sharing of infrastructure, machinery and best practice.

Farming Connect and the importance of skill transfer

The Area Statement will promote and champion the work of Farming Connect, together with the importance of knowledge, skill transfer, training and guidance. Areas of expertise can include nutrient management planning, soil testing, soil management, farm waste management planning, technology and precision farming.

Developing a local food economy

The food chain accounts for 31% of greenhouse gas emissions within the European Union. Working together, we can address this in ways such as sourcing food locally, eating seasonally and reducing food miles (the distance food is transported from source/manufacture to consumer). We also need to reduce our food packaging, something which adds to waste and landfill, while increasing the number of biodiversity habitats for insects and wildlife.

Management of nutrients in river catchments

The Area Statement will seek to promote nutrient reduction, create environmental benefits and nurture successful relationships between stakeholders and communities.

Incorporating trees into the farm business

We need to soften the boundaries between woodlands, forestry and agriculture in order to successfully incorporate trees into the agribusiness. It’s vital that a balance is struck where we find space for trees in ways that don’t adversely effect other important land uses, for instance sustainable agricultural food and land management systems. In addition, sensitive planting should ensure important habitats which already store significant carbon, or support priority habitats and/or species, aren’t negatively affected by trees that would be unsuitable to such environments.

A significant proportion of new trees can be integrated within existing land uses, for example by planting in field corners, headlands and hedgerows on farms, boosting agricultural production while also delivering carbon and wildlife benefits. The Area Statement should promote trees and woodland in the context of land management, ensuring that new planting complements agricultural interests and food production rather than competing against it. Hedgerows could also be maintained and enhanced, with incentives being made available to landowners for planting trees on their least productive land (hedgerow loss was a topic of particular concern at the Ruthin engagement event held in November 2019). In some instances, support should be given to allow natural regeneration of woodland which can be much cheaper than planting trees.

Tackling illegal waste activity and waste crime

Illegally tipped waste is costly and time consuming to remove, dangerous to human health, harmful to wildlife and livestock and, in some cases, can pollute watercourses and contaminate land. All too often, waste crime – the illegal disposal or management of waste – affects deprived communities the most. Working together, we can tackle this significant blight on our rural and urban landscapes.

Natural flood management

Natural flood management is when natural processes are used to reduce the risk of flooding and coastal erosion. Examples of this include tree planting, offline storage areas, soil and land management, dune and beach management, in-stream obstructions and the creation of new wetlands. We need to work with nature to explore new approaches to flood management, considering measures at the catchment level that mitigate the risk of flooding downstream, as well as providing multiple benefits to local communities. One local authority, keen to reduce the impact of flooding in their area, demonstrated ‘upstream thinking’ by wanting to plant trees in a neighbouring authority. Farmers should also be supported for delivering public goods by way of an adaptable grant scheme.


We need to work with local and national colleges to encourage learning modules focusing on sustainable land management, raising awareness surrounding new technologies and precision farming that deliver benefits to the environment and the agricultural business.

Creating a ‘Story Map’ engagement tool

The creation of a ‘Story Map’ public engagement tool would enable people to follow progress, showing evidence and success against the theme. This, in turn, could enable further change, influence opinion and raise awareness. The maps would be designed for any audience with access to the internet.

Developing case studies

Stories matter. They engage us, therefore we learn from them. We need to develop and share case studies about planting trees and woodland creation that showcase the successes. These case studies should also tackle the common misconception that environmental benefits are delivered at a cost to economic development.

Family walking along groyne on Rhyl beach© Crown copyright (2019) Wales

Who have we worked with to date?

In total, 148 people representing 68 organisations across 28 different sectors (with wide-ranging remits) attended five engagement events staged by NRW over the course of 2019. All but one took place at local community venues, the exception being the larger, civic setting of Denbigh Town Hall in July. We also engaged with senior management and portfolio leads of all three local authorities in North East Wales.

Dafydd Thomas, an external well-being consultant, was present at each event which featured an innovative procedure called ‘meeting sphere’ designed to encourage participants to share their true feelings, prioritise what really mattered to them, and work together to get results.

There was good representation at the stakeholder events from bodies in the agricultural sector such as National Farmers’ Union Cymru, the Farmers’ Union of Wales, Coleg Cambria and Farming Connect. Other organisations engaging in discussions surrounding this theme included Dwr Cymru, Public Health Wales and representatives from the fields of conservation and education.

Despite many sectors being well represented, NRW is aware that we need to broaden the appeal of Area Statements beyond those who we routinely engage with. We would like communities and the non-environmental sector to be involved (up until now, non-environmental sector participants accounted for only 15% of those engaged). Working together with Flintshire County Council, invites were sent to approximately 2,500 small and medium-sized businesses, yet the response to date has been disappointing. We have, however, worked with the Young Wales organisation which ran a series of workshops across North East Wales that will contribute to the Area Statement and, in the process, engage and empower young people.

We have always recognised how important engaging with communities is, and we are in the process of considering how best to do that in order to make the most of the opportunities that have been discussed to date. Rest assured, NRW will be encouraging and supporting communities to come together to form groups that share common goals or purposes, helping them shape and deliver the Area Statement so that it benefits their localities.

What are the next steps?

Throughout 2020 we will continue to work with stakeholders as we start to deliver the opportunities identified through the Area Statement. We expect further opportunities to arise as the engagement process continues.

Actions for NRW and stakeholders include:

  • Looking to broaden the appeal of the Area Statement process, encouraging organisations to understand that this is something they can shape, influence and engage with

  • Keeping the Area Statement constantly under review, reflecting new ideas and evidence that comes to light, along with discussions which take place

  • Continuing to map our stakeholder engagement carefully, reaching out to sectors and organisations we have not yet talked to

  • Supporting communities to come together and form groups that contribute to the Area Statement, getting more of a sense in the process about whether the opportunities being identified are in fact the right ones

  • Encouraging a diverse range of stakeholders to come together and form a ‘theme’ focus group to further develop the opportunities identified

  • Encouraging new ways of working, new relationships to be formed, and continuing to build trust with our existing partners

  • Incorporating feedback from the Youth Wales engagement sessions into the Area Statement

  • Signposting partners and communities towards funding opportunities that support the delivery of the Area Statement, including NRW’s own grant funding programme

  • Raising specific points and discussions around policy relating to Area Statements, in our role as principal adviser to the Welsh Government

  • Improving our use of social media, while considering other innovative ways to involve people in the Area Statements process

  • Encouraging better working between local authorities and other organisations, with the aim of maximising outcomes across North East Wales

How does what we’ve proposed deliver Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR)?

The principles underpinning the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (SMNR) are pivotal to the Area Statements process. At the heart of its development has been our collaborative engagement with a broad range of partners and stakeholders, both existing and new. We have tried to start conversations that matter, asking people to talk to people they don’t know, or would never normally speak to. By doing so, it became clear that many shared a similar vision of the future, one that ultimately laid the foundations for our five themes. While some of those conversations were challenging, they always proved worthwhile and productive.

This process has helped us collaboratively define the problem and gain an understanding of the opportunities and potential actions, prior to deciding what needs to be done to achieve our shared ‘vision’. This represents a significant change in how NRW works. In the past we may, on occasion, have gone ahead with our preferred options without engaging or seeking any kind of consensus. The challenge now is to work together with our partners, stakeholders and communities in moulding, and ultimately delivering, these opportunities.

The Area Statement will allow us all to make clear, evidence-based decisions, drawing not only on information that we hold but also evidence our partners provide. Much of the data will be made available to all through NRW’s new data portal. NRW has developed a spatial mapping model (SCCAN Opportunity maps) to support development planning, in particular surrounding urban green infrastructure, woodland creation and biodiversity. This, alongside some of the evidence that our stakeholders have gathered, should ensure that Area Statements will be a vital cog in the development of local development plans. We do, however, appreciate that there are still gaps in our evidence, but we’re working to plug them.

Furthermore, we know that we need to protect our ecosystems and the services they provide by building resilience. There is a strong relationship between sustainable land management, our other four Area Statement themes, and the opportunity to deliver multiple benefits that interlink. All these themes are designed to make our ecosystem services more resilient, to mitigate against climate change, and to help our communities adapt to a changing climate. Again, some of the detail surrounding how best to take these opportunities forward have yet to be addressed. However, we know that many are scalable either by following the North East Wales path defined here, or by taking more of a regional approach in tandem with North West Wales.

How can people get involved?

In North East Wales, we envisage that people will be able to get involved in the discussion surrounding protecting soil and water through farming and sustainable land management by way of further engagement. Details will be announced as the Area Statements process evolves. Should you wish to find out more, please don’t hesitate to complete the following form or email us at 

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