Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fox hunting as agriculture?

Boxing Day has been marked by hunt gatherings up and down the country for generations. It’s a tradition that gave the great and the good a chance to socialise and exercise their horses- all in pursuit of a species that posed a significant threat to the economic interests of a rural nation where those that didn’t own shooting estates tended to eek a living from small farm.

It’s a notion that didn’t really sit particularly well with the majority of people in the UK in the naughties. Most people didn’t feel that a few should have the right to hunt down and kill the wildlife that we are all now entitled to call our own. As a nation we haven’t exactly fallen in love with the fox.  They may be a nuisance to suburban dwellers when they rip open the bin bags or crap in the alpine border but they’re no longer a threat to the livelihoods of anyone- wherever you live.

Fox hunting isn’t a particularly efficient way of killing an animal that bothers few- in short those that weren’t upset by the perceived cruelty were indifferent due to the unnecessary nature of something that was very hard to defend. So hunting with dogs was banned in a confusing piece of legislation that left no-one fully satisfied but appeased enough to get a Labour election pledge ticked off the list.

A return for fox hunting?

Despite this fox hunting wasn’t just going to disappear- hunting with dogs may have been banned but there was nothing to stop the same people congregating and chasing across the countryside for the hell of it- and should a fox happen to cross their path, and should it happen to be mauled by the hounds then so be it.  It’s an open-ended law that is wide-open to abuse but for how many foxes actually die in this way, cruel as it may be- and whilst I agree it should probably be reviewed, I can’t help feeling that as a nation, when it comes to our environment- we probably have bigger fish to fry.

The other thing to remember is that fox hunting has it’s own supporters- still keen to see it return. Public interest in the issue of fox hunting has waned somewhat since the ban, a change that could mistakenly be perceived as public indifference by those keen to see the ban reversed.  Hunt support is often based in the rural land-owning classes- a hot bed of Conservative party support. So for some the present seems like an apt time to re-open the debate.

Fox hunting as agriculture?

As fox hunting is increasingly seen as impractical and unnecessary way to control an  animal that bothers few it became increasingly hard to justify its existence and even more difficult to justify it’s return. It seems in response the ban was repackaged and became less about the rights of the privileged and more about the rural economy and the rights of the ordinary rural man on the street (or country lane).

Of course to tag fox hunting onto the raft of wider rural or agricultural ‘issues’ is a bit silly. Fox hunting is fine if you’re into that kind of thing but it’s not a pressing rural issue, the loss of vital rural bus services, the closure of our post offices or the struggles of the UK farming industry are the things we should focus on.

In light of this I believe it’s important that the UK farmers do not allow the lines to become blurred. Farming is about farming- fox hunting is about fox hunting. It’s a not a view shared by Agriculture Minister Jim Paice.

Mr Paice is a supporter of hunting with dogs- that is his opinon. I also understand it is within his ministerial portfolio to address the issue, and I’d rather things were discussed openly rather than hushed-up or hidden away- I just don’t understand why debating fox hunting should be the job of our Agriculture Minister and I wonder why it so high on his list of priorities when it is completely irrelevant to agriculture in the UK.

Agriculture may not employ the number of people it once did, but the amount of the UK’s land area that is farmed remains close to 80%. Agriculture is concerned with the rather vital role of feeding people, it is also has a vital role in conserving our nations biodiversity and protecting the countryside as we know it. Agriculture faces many big challenges and some even larger issues in the future- issues that will involve and affect all of us. So why is it, on Boxing Day, as millions of people lounge in front of their computers and TVs Mr Paice used this as an opportunity to have a moan about the ban on fox hunting.

Being such a controversial topic, on a quiet news day- the subject appeared on the ‘most-read’ lists of various websites, a success for Mr Paice as it drew lots of attention to his cause. But it isn’t my cause.

So perhaps, as Mr Paice draws up his list of New Years Resolutions he could have a think about how his role as Agriculture Minister can be used to benefit UK Agriculture- there are plenty of issues there to keep him busy in 2012.

I might also suggest that perhaps Mr Paice could afford to spend a little less time worrying about why he can’t use dogs to go fox hunting because non of those real issues facing us in 2012 have anything at all to do with the fox.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Badger culls: action for actions sake?

Depending on how you see it Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman either condemned 'innocent' badgers to a death sentence or she took decisive action against an escalating and very real rural problem. Whatever you make of today's announcement, the chances are you're probably wondering what (if any) difference it can make.

As it's milk that puts bread on my table I have something of a vested interest and although I am not supportive of a cull, I am desperate for something to be done to bring this disease under control. Bovine TB causes a real sense of exasperation, urgency and fear within the farming community and farmers need a real solution- measures to combat bTB need to be based on solid scientific foundations.

I have already discussed my concerns about the use of a badger cull as a way of controlling the spread of bTB but that's not to say I am some sort of new-age tree-hugging farmer... I am not. I want a productive and profitable farm. I just can't help feeling that trial culls in distant pockets of the UK will do little to prevent our herd from contracting TB  and certainly not in the foreseeable future. Oral vaccines may be "years away" but so is the control of bTB through widespread badger culling.

The other factor we cannot overlook is how all this affects the already fragile relationship between the farmer and the person on the street. I have discussed before how farmers are perceived and it must be considered. Whilst I don't believe farming should bow to pressure groups and I am infuriated by the tone sometimes used towards 'farmers'. I do think we must consider how we engage and interact with the public. Any wildlife cull will alienate many people and when, as Spelman suggests, it's the farmers being asked to do the shooting how will the media portray farmers then?

The feeling within the farming community (or at least those not actively opposed to a cull) is that at least something is being done to tackle bTB. When it's taken so long for the problem to even be addressed at higher levels anything seems like progress- and perhaps that's the point of today's announcement. Politicians have largely buried their heads in the sand while the issue escalated and now they've opened their eyes and lurched towards a possible solution that appears most proactive.

Whilst many people are sceptical about what a cull can really achieve for those whose very livelihoods are on the line it seems that someone, somewhere is listening to them. Spelman may want to appear to be taking the bull by the horns, but I can't help feeling she's got the wrong bull.. and they aren't it's horns.

You see, doing something for the sake of doing something is rarely a productive exercise. It's a knee-jerk reaction and in the short term there is little to gain (a 16% reduction in bTB at best) but a lot to loose. If (and it's a big if) the cull is successful in a 'disease reservoir'  area- can it really be a workable and long lasting solution to a countrywide problem. Are we just going to spend 10 years playing with guns until either a workable solution is found or the Conservatives leave office.

My concern is that we're going to be so distracted by years of secret shooting, opposition lobbying, public protest and farmer-hating that we'll all be distracted from the fact that no-one in government is even seriously considering a Plan B (or V), and when you're not sure if Plan A will even work, you really need a Plan B.

When you're dealing with what may turn into a £1 billion problem within a decade- is £250,000 annually on vaccination research enough? When even the Badger Trust and the NFU can bury the hatchet and begin working together on vaccination trials shouldn't the government be giving it a bit more thought?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Putting an end to raptor persecution...

When I was younger the countryside here was a different place. There were birds that aren’t here anymore and other species have returned since then- the pace of change never ceases to amaze me.

When I grew up there were plenty of Kestrels- they were a common sight along roadside verges or over mowed fields. We had Little Owls too, and sometimes saw the occasional Sparrowhawk or Tawny Owl- and that was it- four raptor species. All other species were so rare and confined to the more remote and isolated corners of the UK that we resigned ourselves to the fact that really there were just the four species.

Slowly, as time went by, as a nation we got a little better at tackling some of the threats to our other raptors. We clamped down on the use of certain chemicals and pesticides, and rabbit populations recovered from the myxomatosis outbreak. We became more aware of the problems caused by pollution and the loss of habitat, and we began to better understand the importance of protecting birds and their nests from persecution. With improved conditions in some areas we even began to reintroduce some species.

Some threats didn’t go away- our roads kill too many birds, particularly those whose prey favour the overgrown verges. Many habitats remain degraded and raptor persecution and egg collection are an ongoing and ever present threat to all species. The sad truth is that the species with the smallest, most fragmented and most habitat-specific populations are the hardest hit.

So there were still threats, things were not perfect but we’re moving in the right direction, and the rewards were evident all around us. Within a few short years we are now able to regularly spot Peregrine’s and Hobbys on our farm. They’re by no means common but we also get the odd Barn Owl and Red Kite over the farm, I’ve even seen an Osprey locally, and Merlins have been sighted, but no raptor better symbolises the ability for a population to recover than the Buzzard.

There are few creatures I see in my day to day life that are more impressive than a Buzzard, as they drift on-high or launch into flight and soar skywards. At certain times of the year they gather on warm thermals and where there had been none there were now half a dozen.

The impact these predators have can be seen on the land. Rabbits are particularly problematic for arable farmers but their impact is not normally felt on pastoral farms like ours. Yet without the Buzzards, and few predators capable of controlling them their population had swelled far in excess of natural levels. I remember well walking into one of our small 2 acre pastures and counting sixty rabbits. When the Buzzards returned the rabbit population declined and the balance was restored.

With all this progress it’s even more shocking, frustrating and infuriating when you discover, as I did a couple of years ago, evidence of the persecution of these impressive birds. 

The scene I discovered in one of our fields was a sorry sight. Two adult Buzzards lying dead, either side of the carcass of a pheasant, the evidence of what had caused the death of these birds couldn’t be any clearer. Whatever the poison it was so strong it'd killed them then and there. At the time this was reported and followed up but finding the culprit is notoriously difficult.

It's crazy that when we've come so far that this can still happen. Of course policing such things is incredibly difficult but when this is the case the only true deterrent is a harsh punishment. I understand that the punishment has to remain proportionate to the crime so we need to look at who the punishment is aimed at.

We all know why raptors are persecuted, even if the debate is sometimes clouded by those that argue otherwise. In truth, in 2011 there are so few individuals with the incentive or motive to commit these crimes that it's pretty obvious who is doing it too. If we're honest there aren't a great deal of people in the countryside who feel raptors have a negative impact on their income.

It's for these reasons, because some of our raptors are still being persecuted, and because of the photo above that I am asking anyone reading this blog to sign the petition found on the link below. 

The offence of vicarious liability could address a current shortfall in England's wildlife protection laws. Those who persecute our raptors are not acting alone, they are operating upon the instruction (directly or otherwise) of employers or others with a vested interest. The offence of vicarious liability brings the case to the doors of those in a position to prevent these crimes.

There is no good reason not to make vicarious liability law. Anything that protects our magnificent birds of prey can only be a good thing. So please take a moment. Sign the petition. And help ensure a future for our raptors. 

Sign the petition here

Thank you.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Farmland birds: a global perpective

I don't know about you, but whenever I think of farmland birds it's our native species that spring to mind, species such as Goldfinches, Grey Partridges and Rooks.

We often think of our birds as 'our' birds, we assume they're somehow inherently British. It's because of this it's always a surprise when you first step off the ferry at Calais and realise that the fauna there looks pretty similar to the fauna in Dover. Similarly it's also a surprise when you first discover that many of the birds on your bird table each winter are actually continental arrivals.

It's not that any of this is a bad thing- it's important we maintain the unique blend of species we have. Thinking of them as 'our' birds also ensures we do as much as we can to help those that reside here or visit us, rather than leaving the conservation of a given species up to our neighbouring nations. Protecting the species we have also prevents any hypocrisy when we lecture other nations about conservation, particularly those with whom we share 'our birds'. 

The plight of our farmland birds...

As a nation we may have been a bit slow to notice them disappearing but in the last few years the plight of our farmland species has been highlighted and become the subject of much debate. We can all agree that the drive for productivity on our farms has brought about the severe declines we've seen in some species- but how we go about balancing the need for more and more food and ensuring the restoration and protection of the environment has been less clear.

Increasingly some farmers have felt that their role as producers has been compromised by the perceived restraints of the environmental schemes and conservation measures they must adhere to. In contrast conservation groups have aired frustration at the lack of impact and the perceived inefficiency of the same schemes and measures. Farmland species continue to decline, albeit at a slower pace, when we'd all hoped to see more results for our money.

The debate on the very role of our farmers has become somewhat polarised. I feel not enough people from either side genuinely believe that a productive farming system and farmland wildlife can coexist. The truth is they have to.

There's no question about whether or not our wildlife is allowed to disappear. We simply cannot allow this to happen. The moment we resign ourselves to the fact we don't have room or the will to exist alongside our wildlife is the day the asteroid should strike.

That said, it's equally important our farming operations are allowed to remain productive and where possible prosperous. Increasingly we have come to see the role of our farmers as the guardians of our 'countryside' and maintainers of our scenery- it helps us justify the grants and subsidies but we value them far less as producers.

Their farmland birds...

We live in an age where our milk comes from eastern Europe, our beef from South America and our butter from New Zealand- yes it's travelled a bit further, but it's cheap and it's made convenient to us, so we buy it. Couldn't we just allow other nations to produce most of our food on the cheap, then we'll pay our farmers to farm in harmony with nature and have lots of Linnets and Greenfinches? Surely everyone's a winner? Not quite.

As well as the rather enormous issues of food miles, animal welfare and the exploitation of foreign producers there is also the question of the environmental implications of the intensification of agriculture elsewhere. You see there are farmland birds the world over- not just in good old blighty.

Our traditional farming practices are very old, and our birds have adapted to this environment. No doubt some species were lost from our shores in the mists of time as the land first became 'farmed' but the survivors were able to adapt to the change and today it's their principal habitat. Birds like the Grey Partridge made the transition from from birds of scrubland and steppe to birds of farmland over thousands of years.

Across the globe as farming spread; from cattle ranching and sheep herding to ploughing and paddy fields we changed the world and the wildlife that lives with us adapted. It's something scientists and conservationists have increasingly acknowledged in recent decades, often as a switch from traditional farming practices has proceeded a decline in native species.

All of our farmland birds...

As consumers and tax payers this leaves us in something of a quandary- whichever way we shop something, somewhere suffers- and it's an issue we'll be faced with over and over again as the planets human population swells and our demand for food grows. So what is the solution?

It would be very naive to think that our island home can ever be fully self-sufficient- even if global warming brings vineyards and buffalo dairies to our shores in increasing numbers there will always be something we'll need- and this is not a bad thing. We just need to be aware of what impact our weekly shop is having if we have transferred the production of 'our' food to another part of the world.

Just as we can't write off our farmland birds we can't write off our need to be productive. This isn't simply because we'll have all those new (and increasingly old) mouths to feed- but we also need to avoid exploiting the resources of other nations and instead be able to demonstrate to them that farming and wildlife can co-exist. When we think about how to save our species we mustn't forget that there's a whole world of farmland birds out there facing problems of their own.

Friday, December 2, 2011

List making & loss masking: how small successes mask widespread failures

Every so often I like to count how many bird species I can spot on, around, and over our farm on a given day. I don't do anything special, I just tally up as I go about my business. It's not so much a census, just a chance to see what's around and how things are doing. It also appeals to my inner twitcher.

Yesterday was a bright, clear and mild December day, great for bird spotting, and between dawn and dusk I counted 54 different species. I admit I felt rather pleased with that, especially as one of the birds, the Crossbill, was a ‘farm first’.

It’s fair to say there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of birds, so it’s well done Government, well done Single Farm Payments, well done all and well done me. When there seem to be so many birds flying around it’s very easy to see why some farmers question whether there is a biodiversity crisis at all. It seems that around here at least something doesn’t add up. It’s only when you actually look again at the list that you realise the picture is not as rosy as it might be.

The Flyovers

I have to be honest, a few of the birds I spotted were flyovers, many of these were wildfowl that were headed elsewhere- in bird watching terms these count as ‘sightings’ but they tell me more about birds’ flight routes than they do about the success or failures of stewardship schemes- no matter how wide my field margins are they’re unlikely to attract a Cormorant or a Coot.

The Green List

32 out of the 54 species I recorded are (in conservation terms at least) ‘green listed’. This means that their populations are at the very least stable and may be increasing. This is of course a very good thing- it means 59% of the birds I saw are doing just fine.

There’s no denying this is great news, the majority of the species here are doing ok, this may be because Single Farm Payments are reaping rewards; all those measures might be working- the security of these birds’ populations is very important.

It’s equally important to remember that many of these birds, species such as Jackdaws, Great Tits, Wood Pigeons and Canada Geese- are the generalists that are doing well everywhere. These are the birds capable of exploiting various habitats including the farmed environment. We shouldn’t disregard their success but we can’t hide behind it. Perhaps we should think of these as the species that are doing well in spite of modern farming- not because of it.

The Amber List

Not all of the bird species are doing so well, 11 of them are on the Amber conservation list. This means 20% of the birds I saw are in decline. The populations of birds such as Dunnocks, Kestrels, Bullfinches and Black-Headed Gulls are declining- some inexplicably so.

To see these species is a good thing, it means at least they’re here- but whether our farm is a strong hold I do not know. Am I helping them, or are they simply here because they are widespread? It’s very hard to say. The fact remains their populations are in decline, modern farming practices may not be the root cause but they don’t seem to be the answer either.

The Red List

The bird species on the red list are those with the most drastic and alarming population declines. Some declines have been historical with little recovery but other declines have been more recent. 10 Red listed species were seen on our farm yesterday, namely Linnet, Lapwing, Lesser Redpoll, Starling, Fieldfare, Redwing, Song Thrush, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow and Willow Tit

Given their current predicament perhaps I should count myself lucky to see these birds at all. Does there presence alone mean that Single Farm Payments are addressing and reversing species decline? - on the surface it might appear so, but break the list down yet further and it becomes clear that there is still much to be done.

I must confess that yesterday at least the Linnet and the Lapwing were seen flying overhead. It means good things might be taking place in the vicinity but these birds were not tempted down by anything here.

Similarly the Lesser Redpoll, Starling, Fieldfare and Redwing were in transient winter flocks, none are resident. I was both lucky and grateful they stopped here tempted as they were by alder cones or haws. The truth is neither of these food stuffs were put in place specifically for wildlife. They would exist whether or not we received a Single Farm Payment. We do manage our hedges responsibly but the vast majority of fruit is produced by hawthorn trees that we couldn’t afford to have laid into a hedge- not because we’re paid to keep them as such- wildlife has benefitted but subsidies haven’t necessarily made this so.

The House Sparrows are a resident bird- but this wasn’t always the case. A few years ago I noticed all of the farm’s House Sparrows had disappeared, their numbers had dwindled but it was a sad day when I noticed they had all gone. At risk of sounding sentimental I missed their familiar chirruping from the hedgerows and the cow shed.

I had always put food out for the birds but it hadn’t saved them, I began to buy better quality bird food and feed it ad lib and sure enough, they returned and their population slowly recovered. The seed attracted lots of species including Tree Sparrows which had disappeared from the area many decades ago.

This is great news, it shows that these species can return and recover, it also demonstrates that in this instance it was most likely a lack of food that caused these birds to disappear in the first place. On the down side it also demonstrates that despite the field margins and buffer strips that I am required to provide the farm still cannot provide enough natural food to maintain these species- they survive on hand outs. They are here because I want them here.

Supporting these species with bought seed isn’t cheap; it costs me around £50 per month. It may be more effective and sustainable to try to grow food for the birds but when you only have 200 acres upon which to make a living, and cattle and sheep to feed it’s simply not viable.

Whether or not is cost effective to grow or buy seed is irrelevant to you the taxpayer as the money for either would come from my own pocket. The £600 a year it costs to support many of the farm’s smaller birds is paid for by me, I am not obliged to do this and I don’t have that amount of money to spare, I do it because personally I find the alternative less desirable.

It’s a similar story with our Willow Tits too. I had seen them on the farm and when I read of their drastic population decline I responded with my own environmental measures; I fenced our strip of wet woodland to allow the scrub layer to dominate and I left all dead wood standing, the Willow Tits also readily take supplementary food. As a side effect of my efforts the Song Thrushes have also benefitted. These are not things for which I am paid a hefty subsidy.


I know all this sounds a bit like I am seeking praise or payment. I am not. My reward is that I get to see the birds I see. The frustrating thing is knowing that there’s so much more we could do.

I’m also aware that dissecting good news to find the bad isn’t a very optimistic way to spend my time but I believe it’s very important we should not allow successes to make us distracted or complacent.  At the very least we need to understand what constitutes a viable population and how we can achieve that.

We also need to look again at how publically-funded hand outs are being decided and distributed. Are they being put to best use? We have to keep realistic targets, the amount of money used for subsidising environmental measures may seem enormous, but it has to go a very long way- almost 80% of the UK’s land surface area is farmed.

It seems some of the measures are not a bad thing for our more generalist species but a more targeted regional, local or even farm-specific approach would truly maximise the wildlife potential of our farmland.

I’m not implying Single Farm Payments don’t make a difference, Defra figures show the decline in some farmland species has slowed if not stopped. The presence of many bird species on our farm would suggest that some good things are happening but the absence of others suggests there is a long way to go.

My little tick list of birds neatly grouped into Red, Amber and Green by conservation status can only tell you what’s around now, it makes no mention of the fact that I didn’t see Grey Partridges, Yellowhammers or Corn Buntings.

I’m happy with how things are going here, and I’m satisfied with my list. But I’m not going to make the mistake of letting increases in some species mask the declines in others.