View From The Tractor Seat

 

Mild days in mid-February increase the excitement in the wild bird community. Walking the dogs along a footpath on an arable field margin, a skylark rises and sings its heart out even with an overcast sky; a blackbird chirps a territorial song from a high hedge. These are the obvious wild noises. However, stopping to just listen, the background bird song is there, too far away to easily identify but the sound of spring is getting louder. All through the short days of December and January you might have been lucky to hear the odd robin in the garden but most birds appeared to be conserving energy. A startled pheasant calling, or the plaintive cry of ravens talking to each other, rooks roosting, or a flock of raiding fieldfares from Scandinavia were the sounds of the winter months penetrating the silence enforced by the snow.

Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) for DEFRA’s Countryside scheme may be helping the song bird population. The European Union has taken at least 5% off the money given directly to farmers and redirected this funding into environmental schemes. So to get all the payments that farmers were once entitled to they now have to apply for schemes such as ELS and dedicate parts of the farm or manage the land in a certain way to benefit the environment. Cutting hedges every other year, allowing an uncultivated margin around an arable field, reducing fertilizer inputs or grazing are examples of the different choices for farmers. Any of the options multiplied by the area they cover add up to points and a minimum number of points are required to qualify. Once signed up, payments should be received twice a year and DEFRA inspectors do spot checks to make sure the land is managed as promised. At present the controversy within the European Union is how far the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should go away from direct subsidies to farmers. On one side direct subsidies protect the smaller farmer and so have social and environmental benefits. They also can be used to guarantee our food supply and since WW2 this has worked, there has been no famine in Europe. Hungry people become very angry and history shows how it leads to revolution and war. Worldwide supplies of food look more precarious this year since poor harvests in Russia and fires and floods in Australia.

On the other hand others argue that the subsidy is effectively keeping food prices lower and only the supermarkets profiteer. In most years farmers would not make any profit without the subsidy to add into their accounts. Remove the subsidy and supermarkets would have to pay more for the produce or many farmers will go out of business. The USA wants the EU to remove subsidies so that the American farmer will have easier access to our markets. However the States farmers have some of the highest subsidies in the world that also distort markets. No doubt the argument will keep rolling on for sometime.

The main lambing season will be well underway when you read this. Feeding sheep outside this season had been painful; apart from sliding on the snow there was the additional job of trying to ensure the water kept flowing. The hard work may have been worth it. Some scanned results I heard sounded very promising with numbers of doubles up and barrens down. If they all arrive we just need the grass to grow. Who knows what March will bring, but that’s the gamble of farming.

Richard Bedhall (February 2011)