Ian Thomas and Welcome to Our Woods

Leeks, land and a big plan to tackle climate change in the Welsh Valleys

I first met Ian on a trip to Scotland in 2018. It was organised by Project Skyline to introduce people living in the Welsh valleys to Scottish ideas about stewarding land – from crofting in Kilfinan to community-ownership of the Isle of Mull. Project Skyline was started by Chris Blake explore what it would look like if Welsh communities, instead of looking after little patches of woodland, were handed hundreds of hectares of land for hundreds of years. How could the woods in the Welsh Valleys – planted to grow props for the coal pits and long forbidden to local people – support timber industries, renewable energy projects, food growing and more? How could those people look after the environment as the earth warms? Incredibly, three years later, Ian, Chris and others on that trip are having that exact conversation with the land manager, Natural Resources Wales, and the Welsh Government, at a moment when the pandemic and flooding have brought home the potential for local people to do this work.

Interviewed on April 16, 2020

The pandemic has changed lots of things on a global scale. But locally, we have had extreme weather and flooding on top of this. One of the worst-hit communities was in the town of Pentre. The Forestry Commission felled some trees and tonnes of brash ended up in the culverts that take rain water off the hill sides, under the houses and into the river at the bottom of the valley. The heavy forestry machinery left tracks in the earth as it entered the forest from our community, creating new potential waterways, and when that extreme weather came down there was a problem. The Forestry held their hands up and said it was a problem.

It’s opened up a whole new discussion about how the landscape gets managed. 

We saw a breakdown of local services during this extreme flooding. They have done a good job considering, but we couldn’t rely on them, right down to people having to fix things themselves. Now the community are feeding themselves more, making soap, there are people in the library making masks, people doing food deliveries.

It’s been nice to see people coming together, but it just shows how fragile the system is that we are living in. 

The National Lottery came up with a climate action fund last year and we put forward an expressions of interest: what would a community do if you had £2.5m to address climate change? What’s happened in the last few months has changed our way of thinking. Before the advice was not clear, but now we’re being prepared for change. We are seeing it already. What has happened in the last few months, with the type of rainfall we had this winter: that was meant to be a 100-year storm, but we have seen it three times in a couple of years.

By managing our landscape we’re starting to know things about climate change. It’s indisputable, when your house is full of water: something is going on here. 

It’s obvious now what is sustaining us and it’s Tesco and Lidls and Sainsbury’s. We need more balance. We're reasonably resilient at the top of the valley: we have good networks of civic groups. Our old people are not isolated unless their families have moved away and we know who which ones are. We have a small community – we’re lucky compared to people in larger towns and cities.

Interviewed on March 10, 2021

We have had a really difficult time in our community with Covid. In deprived communities people already had difficulties with health and we have seen these inequalities clearly. Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil have the highest death toll in England and Wales. This is probably one of the most deprived communities in the country.

We’re not in poverty where you can’t eat but we’re in the system and people feel they can’t not go to work.

They’re living hand to mouth, week to week. We have a load of self-employed people, lots of key workers and contractors that have to go to work, and are bringing it back to their mums and dads. 

But oddly enough, in all of this, we have had a lot of attention from staff in public bodies. They seem to have more of time for projects like us. At the start of Covid, it went quiet for a month or two and then the public bodies came alive and they wanted to talk to us about everything. At first it was about helping community members, “Can you help get shopping?” But then it turns into other business.

In the middle of all this we had a meeting with 40 council officers on Zoom, with three of us, to tell them what we were doing on Rhondda Skyline. 

I’ve got two new developments going on right now. One is food growing: Crop Cycle Treherbert. we’ve turned an old petrol station on one of our high streets into a food growing site. We have a few interesting allotment people here in the Rhondda. One’s a guy who travels around the world as a specialist for leek competitions. We want to work with people like him on micro veg to find an historic Rhondda brand: the Rhondda Leek, an adaption of the leeks that have been growing here for decades and decades. 

The other is this derelict Rhondda Brewery site at the entrance to our community woodland. It took us six years to find the owner and in the end we bought it off the Crown Estate using an old vacant land type law. We bought it and first phase is we’re turning it into a small sawmill operation like what we saw up in Scotland.

We sent the big community vision to the Lottery of the sustainable forest being the heart of the programme, supporting five strands: timber processing, zero-carbon social housing using the local timber, food growing, an electric vehicle club and the development of biochar, an organic product a bit like charcoal that can be used as soil improver, in water treatment plants or in construction products. We are developing other ideas over the next 12 months.

National Lottery requested we do some research first to take some of the risk out of the plan and maybe come back to them in 18 months to bid for the £2.2 million. In December 2019 we got some funding given to us by the Welsh government to negotiate with Natural Resources Wales, the body which manages the land we work on.

We had planned to try and own the land as a community, but it was fraught with issues.

Then yesterday we had a meeting about a third option: Natural Resources Wales co-designing a forest with the community. So the public body would manage the forestry contractors and the tree sales that meet the community forest plan, and we do the community development work in the middle. There are still a lot of details to work out, and it will need approval from our Welsh ministers, but this third option is less of a risk on our community. The people who are responsible for the ex-industrial landscape remain ultimately responsible. I always felt the Scotland model was very extreme for Valleys. Because actually, if we buy publicly-owned land and trees, that’s a smaller group of people that own that assets than today.

I believe this is potentially a new Welsh model of community cooperation and land management emerging.

Natural Resources Wales continue to extend our permissions to new areas that we want to work in with our small community team. The team could do weeding, fencing, build dry stone walls and maintain the land and amenities, with the potential to get paid for that work. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here, at the end of the day: a greater connection to our landscape and sustainable jobs for the people in our community.