Wales' new rural affairs minister has said there will be no "wholesale changes" to a policy that saw thousands of farmers descend on Cardiff and protest against it. The Welsh Government-designed scheme to replace EU subsidies for farmers has proved deeply unpopular.

A consultation by the Welsh Government over its sustainable farming scheme (SFS) saw 12,000 people respond, the largest response it has ever had. In his first interview since being appointed as climate change and rural affairs minister by new First Minister Vaughan Gething, Huw Irranca-Davies, said the "hot topic" of the sustainable farming scheme needs dealing with in a "concerted way".

He said he is "listening" to farmers. He said: "I think our approach there has to be first of all saying to farmers we genuinely, really truly are listening and engaging with them, but also wildlife and environmental groups and wider stakeholders.

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"The first meeting that Vaughan Gething did, the first formal meeting was myself and the heads of the farmers union within days of me being appointed, it was a signal moment because it said 'we do get the fact you do have concerns over knotty areas within the SFS'."

In a press conference earlier in the day, the First Minister said his government would show farmers "we are on their side" - something echoed by Mr Irranca-Davies. But the new minister denied that either of them was saying the previous administration, run by Mark Drakeford, had not been.

He said: "I think it's a reality of, after seven years of discussions, and several iterations of consultations, we've still got to a point where, on particular parts of the SFS - and it's not the whole - there are knotty things we still haven't resolved. It's not that there isn't a will to do it, or there wasn't before.

"You always get to a point, particularly when we've been through this trajectory that we went onto when we withdrew from the European Union we had to fashion, not only a different future, post Common Agricultural Policy but a better future that not only rewards farmers for the food production they do, but food security they deliver but also responds to what are genuine nature and climate emergencies.

"We were bound to get to a place where, as we get close to the final points of discussion and consultations, there were some knotty issues that needed to be ironed out." Mr Irranca-Davies denied the stalemate was inevitable.

Cabinet secretary for climate change and rural affairs Huw Irranca-Davies
Cabinet secretary for climate change and rural affairs Huw Irranca-Davies

"It wasn't inevitable but it happens and it's happened in other areas before. Part of my role, coming in now, is undoubtedly to listen, it's an easy word to use but it is genuinely listening, but on the basis that as with that first meeting the First Minister and I had with union leaders, we're agreed the framework is a good, sound framework," he said.

"The objectives are the right objectives, we're no different. Within it there are two or three things we need to pick at, engage a lot more heavily and rapidly."

At the end of her time in the environment role, Lesley Griffiths said she did not think the plans being consulted on would be the final ones. Mr Irranca-Davies said he would be "surprised" if there were not some changes, but will not see "wholesale changes" or "retreat".

Asked about the amount of land the policy would require farmers to give over to tree planting, a major cause of concern from farmers, he said: "That's one of the knotty areas, but not the only one. I'm not going to pre-empt on what we're now going to intensively engage on with farmers but wider stakeholders as well, to see which ways, what ideas they have, to resolve some of these."

He would not commit to a timescale to respond to the 12,000 consultation responses the Welsh Government had. "They won't have to wait long," he said.

"I think you're seeking dates from me here." Pushed, he responded: "We're not signalling we're kicking this into the long grass, we're not delaying forever and a day as some people have asked for, some have even said scrap it and start again.

"The very worst thing for farmers would be if we say we're scrapping it or starting again or fundamentally rewriting what we've done. We've the timetable we have, in the next few weeks we'll be bringing forward proposals on dealing with those knotty issues, the process we're going through and timescales as well.

"You'll have to hold on a little, but not too long. What farmers need is certainty and need to know they're not going to have a government that's going to throw everything up in the air again."

"On the SFS, we will work through them together," he said. "I am convinced we can get through it and in a timely way. We don't want long-running uncertainty for farmers."

5,500 pairs of wellington boots at the Senedd
The 5,500 pairs of wellington boots at the Senedd show the direct job losses the Welsh Government admits would impact the industry

There was criticism of Labour for not sending any politician to speak at a protest event at the Senedd where thousands of farmers attended. Mr Irranca-Davies was then a backbench MS and could have attended, something that would have been trickier for his cabinet colleagues.

Asked why he didn't attend, he said: "I've spoken to farmers before and after that protest and you'll remember there was a different, silent demonstration with the Wellington boots subsequently, which I went and spoke to farmers at and we had good conversations. There was some worry at the time from farmers themselves the first protest could have been used by others, not from the farming community, who were on the fringes of some of these debates, or not from them at all, and that would include some of those within those climate denial camps and so on.

"I noticed and found it abhorrent when I watched on the news that evening, that one of the women farming leaders spoke raising concerns but also saying we as a union are standing up for those climate change imperatives we have, we need to do our bit and there were boos. There's an interesting dilemma about how we work together."

The former MP said there were methods in Westminster to invite delegations inside, for example, but that didn't happen. "We don't seem to be easily set up to do that in the Senedd," he said.

"There may be other ones in future so how do you meet with constituents or leaders?" Asked if he regretted not attending, now he holds this role, he replied: "No, because there were genuine worries at the time about who might be at it."

Mr Irranca-Davies said he has spent the recess break reading up on areas in his portfolio, but says he has a background in the area from when the former MP worked in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2007. Mr Irranca-Davies says he didn't expect the call from the First Minister offering him the job but said he was "delighted, and somewhat surprised".

However, he said if there was a portfolio he wanted, it was this. He said: "It combines the passions of mine, farming, natural environment, biodiversity, elements of the things like the circular economy like the deposit return scheme."

The keen cyclist and canoeist, said: "I might be what you call a green red politician. I have a long background and history, both in background and professionally, within farming and rural issues."

Born in Gowerton, Swansea, his first job was at the local mart. From the age of eight he would spend "days" being paid the equivalent of 50p herding sheep and cattle, getting them into trucks to the abattoir.

"That prepared me for playing hooker in rugby, tackling those sheep, I'm telling you," he said. Mr Irranca-Davies denied that splitting the climate change portfolio into a number of ministries showed a move away from the green agenda. "No, not at all," he said.

The Ogmore MS said there will be a commitment across all ministerial portfolios and it will be his role to ensure his colleagues are factoring that into all decisions. He said it was the right call to make a super ministry under the previous administration, but that now, the green philosophy is "deeply embedded". "We will be holding every minister to account," he said.