Sunday, April 29, 2012

Big weather. Little birds

I love BIG weather. The downside is it can cause flooding, take off the garden shed roof, cut off the phones or hinder travel but it makes you feel small, a little bit helpless and even insignificant, and in this modern world where we're each at the centre of our own personal universe- a sense of scale within the wider world probably isn't a bad thing.

Today's strong winds brought down a few boughs and the odd tree but they weren't the strongest to date but they were relentless and unseasonal and when combined with the driving rain they made today a bad day to be a wild bird.

The farm as a whole is already struggling to cope with the heavy and continued rain we've had. It is of course much-needed but arriving all at once as it has makes it seem like Mother Nature is being sarcastic. We lamb our sheep later than many farms as it allows us the time to comfortably get all the cattle out of their winter housing and into the fields- it also means the weather is typically more favourable and the lambs can be born outside with minimal human interference- but it looks like the gamble didn't pay off.

This year the young stock are still indoors, the dairy herd are turning their fields to mud and lambs are being born into constant rain and biting winds. You know your fields are sodden when they attract Mallards, dozens of Starlings and a daily flock of foraging gulls that has now reached over 200 birds.

Today's strong winds and rain saw many birds seeking shelter; the bird feeders were abandoned, the sky empty and even the most persistent species like the gulls and the corvids were overpowered and depleted in number. Occasionally Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps were still singing, but from the hedgebottoms not the treetops.

Perhaps the saddest site of the day was a scattering of little black dots on a bankside that turned out to be a flock of Swallows. As I approached I could see their feathers were drenched, their wings hanging by their sides, and they appeared exhausted as they made little effort to move despite my presence. 'Our' Swallows were already sheltering in the farm buildings but these were clearly someone else's birds- probably headed north but stopped in their tracks.

I've seen Swallows on the ground before, but only odd birds, and always by the side of puddles in the farmyard as they collect mud for their nests. This was something different, but I backed away. It was unlikely I could do anything for them that wouldn't risk more harm than good- even trying to gather them up would probably be a rather misguided and destructive affair. But I did resolve to keep an eye on them.

I thought about those Swallows for much of the day- all the trials and thousands of miles they'd endured to get here and I then thought about what they'd arrived to. Yet the more I thought about them, the more I realised just how smart and how tough these little birds are.

Yes, the conditions weren't exactly Swallow-friendly but rather than continuing to fly on unsuccessfully they (guided by their survival instincts) had decided to cut their losses and sit it out. They were basically doing what I'd do in their position. What's more they'd chosen one of the farm's few south facing banks to land on- they were safe from the north-easterly wind, and indeed the rain. The howling winds blowing just a couple of feet over their heads were enough to keep many would-be predators off their cases.

So today's Swallows were a sorry sight and I don't believe in sugar-coating a pill, no matter how bitter- but, drenched and exhausted when flying was impossible- they'd taken a rather practical plan B. A decision that turned out to be the right one as  5 hours later, when the wind had died down (a little) they were all back on the wing, zipping along the woodland edge and catching any insect brave enough to take flight. They'll be gone tomorrow and if you live north of Derbyshire they might just end up somewhere near you.

Big weather can cause big problems, but the environment is full of little survivors that are capable of great feats of endurance. Some species are more delicate and prone to suffer but you'd be surprised at how good they are at pulling though when more is at risk than just the phone connection or the garden shed roof.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Putting a price on our farmland birds...

Money makes the world go round. It's no secret and it's not ideal, but it's a fact and it's the reason why so much is wrong with the world.

Take for example the decline of our farmland birds. The demand for cheap food and the post-war subsidisation of our food production led to their decline, and in a way it's my fault, and it's your fault, and the fault of everyone that's eaten anything in the last 60 years (which is most of us).

Our farmers were the ones doing the producing that led to this decline and are the ones we all blame for the fact that these days if want to see a Corn Bunting I need a train ticket and a lot of luck.

As a nation we like to think that we control our farmers, because their work is subsidised. Rightly or wrongly we feel a degree of ownership over them and the countryside they manage. Since we pay our taxes we feel they should farm how we want them to and not how the rules of capitalism dictate they should.

In many ways that's not a bad thing if people feel connected to their countryside and feel impassioned to seek change for the better.

Whilst we seek that change we must also remember that it's money  that makes the world go round. Goodwill can go a long way, and our farmers have bucket-loads of it, but farming remains a profit-driven industry.

This isn't a thinly-veiled appeal for more Government money as cynics may believe, I'm simply highlighting the fact that if our farmed environment is to support the species we would like it to then we have to find the best way to make that happen with the limited resources we have- this also HAS to be viable when compared to farming the land for maximum output.

This isn't easy. In fact it's bloody tricky, and made all the more difficult by the fact that in many sectors the price paid for our food is now slowly increasing, making more intensive food production an ever-more appealing option for someone looking to make a living from the land. And who can blame them, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to work for a lesser salary to stricter guidelines dictated by someone else.

The simple answer is not to offer any form of subsidisation to those that don't farm in an environmentally-sympathetic manner, and that's logical. But if food prices continue to increase it's not going to be enough of a disincentive to put people of farming for a higher profit.

It's a  bit of a conundrum- not least because it leads us to question what price we would pay for our farmland species. We HAVE to know what to do if subsidising the environment cannot compete with the demand for food.

It's not all bad news- there are things we can do to farm the land for profit AND wildlife- some of them remarkably simple and effective. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the RSPB have worked hard on finding practical solutions, their work has correctly focused on the evolution of our farming practices rather than a revolution within the industry.

What we now need to think about is how we encourage and inspire farmers to adopt the successful measures- and it's not always that farmers are unwilling to do these things. If I went to my local livestock auction and spoke to those assembled around the sales ring about Lapwings I don't doubt they'd all lament their demise, but probably all be unsure if and how they could do anything to make a difference.

The other thing they'd all be pretty sure of is that they were to blame for the Lapwings disappearance- they've been told it enough.

I see the farming community as a huge pool of neo-conservationists- they have the potential to be the Corn Buntings best friend. Because of existing environmental subsidies, the good work of groups such as the RSPB and The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the will of the farming community we have the potential to apply the brakes to (and where possible reverse) species decline- depsite the increased demand for affordable food.

We now need all those concerned to make a concerted effort to implement the findings of these trials, they need to disseminate their results to farmers and not just fellow conservationists, and where possible pull out all the stops to help and encourage farmers to take up new methods. Offering incentives to farm for wildlife may convince some- but for others just showing that farming for wildlife will not hinder profits is more effective.

Helping to save our farmland birds is all about looking to the future and not the past. It's about working with farmers and not standing on your soapbox, pointing the finger of blame and repeatedly telling them it's their fault. Especially when we've all so clearly dined on the fruits of their labour.

So money makes the world go round- and we have to accept it. So subsidise the farmers or don't subsidise the farmers- the sustainability of subsidised agriculture is always questionable and as demand for food increases it may end up being irrelevant anyway. Working with farmers for a profitable AND sustainable countryside will be better for all of us in the long run.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April (snow) showers, bring forth May flowers...

Sometimes Spring can seem a bit like a tick list- beginning somewhere in darkest February and petering away in late May. We all have a different Spring tick list- dominated by the things we notice most. For some people the list could be dominated by the particular order in which they plant their vegetable seeds. For some it might be the order in which you shed the winter woollies . And for others it might be the run of boozy Bank Holidays that punctuate the calender at this time of year.

However you measure the arrival of Spring the chances are that somewhere in your list will be a nod to the natural world- be it the first daffodil, the first lambs or the return of the Swallow. Whatever it is the most important thing is that these indicators arrive roughly in the correct order.

For those of us that take an interest in the natural world the Spring is marked by arrival of particular flowers, particular emerging insects and particular migrating birds. Sometimes things run a little behind schedule, sometimes ahead of themselves, but as long as the order is maintained we're happy, it's a relief, and summer is on the way.

Chiffchaff, Sand Martin, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Swift. It's just the way it is and if one year the Whitethroat arrived before the Willow Warbler, or the Garden Warbler failed to turn up it wouldn't feel right at all. I still hear people that are quite put out by the fact they haven't heard a Cuckoo.

This Springs' order had been going so well. It was the 3rd of April, Chiffchaffs were nest-building, Sand Martins had been sighted, and right on queue a Willow Warbler had been heard. And then it snowed.

It had been forecast, but somehow the absurdity of the prospect of snow meant it didn't really register , it was like a be-lated April Fools. joke From about 5.30am it snowed... and snowed. The strong winds drove it sideways, our electricity was cut off, the roads blocked, and something I can only describe as 'seasonal confusion' kicked in.

By first light we were white-over, and the countryside was eerily quiet. I topped up the bird feeders and House Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, Chaffinches & Goldfinches flocked back, some species particularly the Tits had naturally dispersed in search of breeding sites so were slower to find their way back to their winter feeding station. Unsurprisingly the birds consumed more than five times the amount of food they normally do in one day at this time of year.

The dairy herd had been turned-out for the summer just a couple of weeks ago, today they found themselves back inside- not that they minded- for them as for us- confusion reigned. They could only watch, and presumably speculate that we had experienced a very short summer indeed.

Snow continued throughout the day, clearing the ground proved a waste of time as the snow simply reclaimed the exposed ground within minutes. The strong winds meant the snow drifted, areas sheltered from the wind escaped the snow and larger birds such as a Rooks, Pheasants, a Jay and a Red-Legged Partridge were seen foraging on clear ground. Black-headed Gulls also took advantage of these areas but looked strange traversing a snowy sky in full summer plumage.

We tend to lamb our sheep a little later than most farms, we do this because it would be too much work for us to care for the dairy herd whilst housed indoors and lamb the sheep- whilst not usually ideal, this year it's worked out for the best. Here some of our in-lamb ewes shelter from the blizzard. Many farmers were happily lambing their flocks outdoors and may now have lost young lambs to the freezing conditions. Even those indoors will have suffered as power cuts meant it was impossible to keep vulnerable lambs warm.

Some of our cattle had been taken to summer-grazing away from the farm, they couldn't be returned to their winter sheds and for them the snow was a nasty surprise. For the young calves it was about keeping them warm, and with no time to prepare keeping out the cold relied on straw bales, wood and of course bale-string.

Trees were emerging from winter dormancy and the sap-filled boughs struggled to cope with the wet, heavy snow and the strong winds. Boughs were brought crashing down across the farm and some roads were blocked. Thankfully we didn't lose any trees and in the woodland block the trees were relatively unscathed.

And even when in the house the fun and games weren't over. The lack of electricity only made things more challenging, and no matter how long it takes the sodding kettle to boil- tea is always a priority!

It's been a cruel 24 hours for our countryside, bad for the livestock, but perhaps worse for the wildlife. The poor Willow Warbler that flew thousands of miles to-and-from Africa and arrived just yesterday- all to avoid a UK winter will have experienced a taste of one nonetheless. The five species of butterfly that had emerged early and were flitting happily around the farm last week have will probably have perished- it's a bit depressing. When the weather does this, inconvenient, frustrating and harsh as it may seem- it's nature.

Thankfully the snow is now melting,  the forecast tells us it'll be cool for a couple more days meaning it will linger but then Spring will continue, aided by the (much-needed) water from the snow melt. It's been stressful and there will have been little tragedies right across the farm but the Willow Warbler will hopefully be singing again soon and Wednesday 4th April will probably not go down in the records as a great natural catastrophe.

In fact, just to prove that Spring continues, today will be remembered for something... our first flowering bluebell. Tick.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Remember you're a Womble...

I find it astounding that in 2012 we have a litter problem in our countryside. In so many ways our attitudes have come so far since the 1970s, 80s and even 90’s. ‘Green’ issues have become political and not just about lefty-liberalism; you don’t have to chain yourself to a tree or reside in a tunnel under the proposed route of a motorway to show you care about the environment. ‘Green’ issues have become accessible and acceptable like never before.

We’ve all heard of our 'carbon footprint' and 'ethically sourced' foods, many of us worry about the melting polar ice caps and biodiversity decline, and whether by hook or by crook we all recycle. Despite all of that, despite living in these environmentally-enlightened times, when seismic environmental changes are occurring- littering, such a simple issue to prevent, is getting worse.

A couple of weeks ago I became frustrated at the amount of litter strewn along the country lanes in this quite corner of Derbyshire, I assumed it was more apparent because it was exposed by the lack of vegetation or because like so many gripes it is prevalent when you look for it- but I was sure it hadn’t been this bad for years. I tweeted about it and many people up and down the country confirmed by suspicions- I wasn’t just a moaning do-gooder, I was a moaning do-gooder with a point.

So if there really is more litter- who is dropping it? And more importantly, why? In a spare half-hour I litter-picked a mile of the lanes nearest to the farm and gathered a full black bag of the stuff, and not just a half-hearted, loosely-tied bag of air, I’m talking about a burgeoning, ripping-at-the-seams bag of rubbish- but what do it’s contents tell us about our persistent litterers? What sort of person literally trashes the countryside in 2012?

The Disconnected: The whole picnic

A whole meals-worth of picnic wrapping all contained in a carrier bag and left in a hedgebottom- who is to blame for that? Well the food manufacturers have something to answer for given the amount of plastic wrapping- but what sort of family leaves all that waste behind?

Presumably to even opt for a picnic there must have been at least some perceived pleasure in dining al fresco, the culprits must have found this piece of countryside aesthetically pleasing enough to warrant stopping here to eat. Given that we’re talking about a remote country lane it’s safe to assume they drove here or cycled here, and we know they had a carrier bag- so why leave it?

Perhaps we live in a world in which we eat, and then leave. From fastfood to fine-dining once we’ve eaten, we stand-up and we walk away. Perhaps these people believe a countryside picnic is a brand name and this lane was an outlet. Perhaps they thought a ‘Countryside Picnic’ waitress would turn up after they’d gone. Either way, they were wrong.

The Selfish: wet wipes

No one can argue with hygiene and the people that disregard it can often be tracked down by nose alone, but we’ve all become rather obsessed by our quest to live in a sterile environment. We’ve all seen the adverts: bad mothers leaving their innocent children exposed to a teeming swarm of deadly bacteria or the neon glow of bacteria all over the entire kitchen and stemming from the uncooked chicken. Its clever marketing, it’s scare-mongering, and it’s little wonder we’re a nation of paranoid OCD sufferers.

The latest weapon in the arsenal of the over-wary is the anti-bacterial wet wipe. For just a few pounds you can carry a little pack around just in case you touch anything. They’ll kill all known germs and leave your skin coated in chemicals that make your hair drop out and render your children infertile (scare tactics of my own).

And sure enough they’ve reached the countryside. Despite being an undoubtedly clean environment, the sheer amount of these I found indicates visitors are terrified of contagion. Once their hands are wiped the wipee is then left holding a wiped wipe- they clearly have no choice but to drop it, then presumably wipe their hands again before fleeing the germs.

The Disregarding: Alcohol

Many of us enjoy a drink, and even more of us enjoy a day out- I find the two are best combined with a good village pub at the end of a walk but each to their own. In the hedgebottoms around here I found a surprising amount of empty cans and even a gin bottle- I don’t know what life throws at some people but when you find yourself knocking back half a bottle of gin in a country lane you probably have bigger things to worry about than what you do with your litter.

That said the vast majority of the cans were for the energy drinks and cheap lager that make an evening driving a Nova around Spar car park a much more enjoyable experience.

The Careless: Farm waste

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones (or litter) and farms have a lot to answer for around here. The lanes are the traversed by farmers from across the area but we are one of only a handful of working farms in the area and are probably not blameless.

How farmers dispose of things such as plastic silage wrap is now monitored and it’s correct disposal recorded- but there’s nothing to stop long strips of the stuff taking flight in the wind before becoming entangled in the miles of hawthorn, bramble and barbed wire that divide our countryside.

 I doubt farmers go around putting it there, or shoving the plastic corn bag or the mineral bucket  in the hedge bottom  or throwing their work gloves in the verge but it’s nothing a bit of good housekeeping wouldn’t solve. There are several things we’re advised not to do on our own doorstep- and littering is one.

The Misguided: Balloons and lanterns

A cloud of coloured balloons in a cloudless sky or a trail of glowing Chinese lanterns through the night sky are nice things to see- and they may drift out of sight but you’d be pretty misguided to assume they’ve disappeared. I’m forever picking the remains of balloons and lanterns up from our fields and hedges- I found two balloons on my litter-pick and a lantern a couple of days later.

In practical terms is launching 100 balloons really any different to ‘launching ‘ 100 carrier bags or drinks bottles or crisp packets? And in the case of lanterns there’s the added risk as the whole thing is aflame.

Its easy to sound like a killjoy when you’re complaining about something that people enjoy but on our small farm we’ve lost at least one cow to a humble balloon. I'm sure you'd agree that seeing a previously healthy cow abort her calf or end up destroyed for the sake of someone’s balloon is a tad sobering.

The Mindless: Dog poo in a bag, hung from a tree(!)

That’s dog dirt. Picked up in a plastic bag by the owner. Then hung from a tree. It defies all logic, sense and reason. Whatever the situation- if it fell out of your dog- it belongs to you.

I’ve tried to find an explanation or justification I really have- but I can’t. Putting it in a bag is a good thing- but then the whole point is to bin it. If you don’t like carrying dog crap around like a warm, squidgy souvenir then  either don’t take your dog, or walk it somewhere you KNOW there are bins.

Leaving it in the countryside is like a big two fingers up to every other person who comes across it.


So who drops litter? Judging by the rubbish I found there are lots of different people doing it, and lots of different reasons why they do it. Be their actions disconnected, selfish, disregarding, careless, misguided, mindless  or even malicious the one thing they all have in common is that they’re totally unnecessary.

Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the old ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign, or (heaven forbid) call  the Wombles. Or maybe we need to look more closely at our attitude to the countryside and how it’s managed. Maybe as a society we’ve become accustomed to such things being ‘someone else’s job’.

One of the more bizarre items I found was a punnet that once contained Organic Blueberries. It’s a mad contradiction when someone who is presumably aware of their own wellbeing and that of the environment (and pay extra for it) is able to discard their litter so freely. There must be a breakdown between the perceived cause and effect of littering.

Such contradictions are an increasingly common feature in our society, in the same way we worry about the environment we still do bonkers things like buying bottled water, flying everywhere, and eat out of season produce we know has travelled half way around the world. Why do we do it- we do it because  it’s only me, no one is looking, it’s just once, and someone somewhere will compensate for it by doing the correct thing.

It might not be a crime to think that way, but when 60 million of us think like that is there any wonder we’re seeing more and more litter in our otherwise beautiful countryside.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Spring awakening...

It's been several weeks since I last posted, our wonderful Internet provider left us without any broadband for a few weeks and there has been lots to do at this very busy time of year.

The dairy herd are still kept indoors around the clock which means a lot of work for those tasked with keeping them content. On the farm January and February are very much times for keeping your head down, working away, often in darkness and sometimes in snow. By March it's (usually) safe to at least take stock. We have a lot less silage, and a lot more muck but it will be a few weeks more before the ground is dry enough, and the grass recovered enough for the cows to go out- but there are lots and lots of signs that Spring is coming.

No one is more ready for those sunnier days than the cows themselves, for them 'turning out day' cannot come soon enough-it only takes a sunny day and they will gather at the side gates of their shed in anticipation. On such days its not wise to spend too long around the cowshed as the cattle tend to assume you're readying the gates for 'turning out' and can become unduly excited and stressed. And of course there are still a few cold nights and wet days when they're more than happy to be indoors.

Whilst the cows are perhaps picking up on the temperature, day length, and the scent of new grass, for us there are other signs of the impending Spring- its arrival to this quiet corner of Derbyshire has played out as follows:

  • 16th February: Black-headed Gull in full Summer plumage over the farm
  • 20th February: Skylark singing overhead
  • 21st February: Birth of 2012's first calf
After this we had a small Wintery interlude (winterlude?) before more developments:
  • 26th February: Oystercatcher heard calling
  • 27th February: Frogs in the ditches & a Curlew heard calling
  • 28th February: Baby rabbits emerged from warrens
  • 29th February: First Common Newts & Common Pipistrelle, large flocks of Fieldfare gathering and passing over.
  • 1st March: Birth of the second calf of 2012, Seven-spot ladybirds & Bumble Bees emerged, 6 Skylarks
  • 6th March: Great Crested Grebe courtship seen at nearby reservoir.
  • 7th March: first frogspawn
  • 9th March: Celandine flowers
  • 11th March: Small Tortoiseshell & Red Admiral butterflies on the wing
  • 12th March: Dandelion flowers & Mining Bees

It can only be a matter of days before the first Chiffchaff is heard or weeks before our Swallows return.

All this time spent offline and the seasonal optimism have allowed me to get three little projects underway. They're all slightly nerdy and will be very much ongoing- but I will keep you updated when/if they prove interesting.

Bird of Prey Monitoring:

I think birds of prey are a good gauge of the health of an eco-system, sitting (somewhat precariously) at the top of a food chain means when the whole thing collapses they have the furthest to fall and the longest climb back to recovery.

The farm attracts a decent number of bird of prey species, though the populations of some of our species appear to be at something of a turning point. Kestrel & Little Owl sightings seem to be fewer, while the Buzzard population seems to go from strength to strength, Sparrowhawks appear to also be more frequently spotted, though this could be due to the male that is living up to his name and hunting the Sparrows in the garden.

Hopefully by recording, rather than just 'noticing' I will be better placed to see how our birds of prey are doing, and as a result understand the effects our farming practices are having on prey species populations and nest site availability.

  • In the mean time if you're keen to prevent birds of prey from deliberate harm and would like to see the introduction of the offence of vicarious liability for raptor persecution in England you can do so by signing the petition here

Brown Hare Monitoring:

Anyone who has read my blog before may well know that much as I am a bird lover, I am also extremely fond of this brilliant mammal, what's more I am interested to know how and why our farming methods (seem to) benefit this species.

This will follow a similar pattern to the recording of birds of prey in that it will hopefully provide more information as time goes by- and I will bore you with my 'data' at some point in the future.

  • If you want want to record the mammals you see please submit your sightings to The Mammal Society and help them build up a picture of how our mammals are doing across the UK. Submit your sightings here

Calving blogs:

As a dairy farm the story of why some of our birds have disappeared and others prospered is inextricably tied up with the management of our land, the management of our dairy herd and ultimately the pressures on the industry.

I think it's really important to understand what farmers do and the reasoning behind the decisions they make and I have often wondered how to communicate this, it's not about sympathy, or blame or tales of woe (well, not totally) but about openness and maybe education.

With the arrival of our first calves of the year, it seemed obvious, nothing tells the story of a dairy farm better than the cows themselves, so expect updates on what's happening in the herd and (hopefully) what becomes of this years calves as they grow. You may find it interesting and educational, you may find it very dull and wish I'd stop blogging- but either way it will make a change from my endless bird sightings.

  • No links for this one, but a nice picture of 2012's first calf, a Friesian heifer. I had a few name suggestions on Twitter, and non seemed more apt than Tweetie- more on her soon...

    Thursday, January 12, 2012

    Milk, muck & NVZs

    Cows poo... a lot. They also break wind a lot- which concerns some scientists. But the most pressing issue is the poo, and more specifically what we do with it.

    Dairy cows typically spend their lives grazing the fields, all that grass is processed (and reprocessed) within the cows large and complicated digestive system in order to extract as many nutrients as possible. The byproducts of this process are methane... and fields dotted with nice big cow pats.

    In the winter the weather becomes unfavorable for dairy cows, wet fields quickly become trampled and as the temperature drops our fields cannot grow enough food for the cattle- for these reasons dairy cows will spend a few months housed indoors. Here they are fed silage, given shelter, and providing they have enough room and suitable housing they are quite happy. The downside is that they produce a lot of poo... in a small area.

    Our herd is cleaned out twice each day and the poo is gathered in a concrete-lined pit outside of the  cow’s shed and collected until we have the time (and the right weather) to allow us to transport it out to the fields to be spread. Of course the cows produce the same amount of poo as they would if they were outdoors, but a concentrated slurry of poo (and wee) spread over a relatively small area, on water-logged soil leads to run-off- as a result nitrates enter our waterways causing all sorts of problems. We have become more responsible when it comes to the use of fertilizers (another source of nitrate) but managing the distribution of slurry is now a contentious issue.

    It wasn’t so bad when farms had smaller herds, they were often fed on hay (which led to drier poo) and small herds meant smaller muck heaps and less need to spread the slurry on such a regular basis. As the average herd size grew, so did the amount of slurry produced by individual farms- and nobody was aware of the damage we were all doing to our waterways.

    Introducing NVZs...

    To tackle the issue we now have a shiny new European Commision Nitrates Directive under which land that drains into water polluted by nitrates are designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones or NVZs. The implementation of the directive is being overseen by the Environment Agency and mandatory rules for farmers are being phased in across all NVZs- in short dairy farmers whose land is within an NVZ will have to securely store all of the slurry  their cattle produce between the months of October and March. The regulations will most likely (and rightly) come to encompass all the UK’s farmland over the coming years.

    Our small herd of 70 dairy cows produce a lot of slurry- our small slurry pit is about 40 years old and our herd can fill it in about 6 weeks- finding somewhere to store 6 months worth of slurry is going to be difficult... and expensive.

    We’ve consulted a lot of people to look into giant covered pits, massive metal tanks... even rubber bags- there’s no way around it we will have to invest at least £60,000. On top of this we also have long-needed to replace our milking parlor and carry out work on the housing- more investment.

    In business terms £60,000 may not seem like a big investment- but to our business it is. In total each year we receive somewhere in the region of £108,000 for our milk. Producing this milk requires investment in silage production, rent, fertilizer, loan replayments, corn, water, electricity, machinery, veterinary bills and two people working all day, everyday. It may sound like a lot of money but milking is already being made unviable by those further up the chain.

    The reality is our farm will probably be forced to close in the coming years. It’s something that’s already happened to thousands of small farms- and is likely to happen to those that remain. Our farm buildings will be converted to housing or holiday cottages, and fields that aren’t snapped up for building plots are likely to be absorbed into larger neighboring farms that are better placed to invest the money required. Market forces increasingly dictate that if you’re not able to produce a lot for a little you’re out of business. The quality of your product, how far it’s travelled, the welfare of the cows, or the impact of your farm on the environment don’t really matter. After all it’s only milk.

    But all this is a bit depressing isn’t it- back to the poo.

    Controlling the nitrates on our farmland is vital to protect our precious water. I’m not a fan of industries turning a blind-eye because sorting something out is the trickier option. But I am concerned about the repercussions of driving small scale farms out of business- not just for the individuals involved but also for our environment. I have long blogged-on about the role small farms could,  should and do play in preserving our dwindling farmland species but when it comes to NVZ rules I have to admit we have something of a catch-22.

    In protecting our waterways are we inadvertently damaging the farmed environment by forcing our small farms out of business?  Is it right to help one facet of the natural world if doing so damages another? It’s an argument that crops up again and again- everything is a trade-off of sorts; from culling Ruddy Ducks to flying to an environmental conference. It’s a matter of weighing up impacts- it could be a long process, and to be fair in this case the two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

    We have to protect our waterways and to be honest NVZs are just one of the many things stacked against our small and medium farms. I only ask that we introduce the changes in a more sensitive way- particularly for those most at risk from going out of business as a result.

    If we don’t do it through grants or subsidies (which are never popular with the public) then perhaps we should look at ways of ensuring buyers, supermarkets and the like are obliged to buy British milk produced in a nitrate-sensitive way as opposed to importing even cheaper milk from the far corners of the EU and beyond- places that don’t face the same levels of nitrate regulation- and yes, that should include the millions of gallons that goes into other products too.

    It’s not about taxing imports or penalizing our neighbours. It just strikes me as a bit mad that we produce all this great food to high environmental and welfare standards (and spend millions implementing and policing its production). To then send it overseas and buy back cheap and unregulated food in its place. It’s wrong in lots and lots of ways.

    It’s really just about helping our farmers by offsetting some of the costs their businesses face when protecting our environment. If we help our farms to comply they can produce lots of great milk, protect our farmland birds and our waterways.

    Sunday, January 8, 2012

    Cheap food- at what price?

    Yesterday The Grocer magazine marked it's 150th birthday by studying the prices of select items in relation to the prices paid in 1862- the study made for some interesting reading and tells us as much about life today as it does about life 150 years ago.

    Incredibly back in the Victorian era it was typical for a family to spend a third of their income on food- something unimaginable by today’s standards where our food 'spend' has been eclipsed by our soaring fuel bills, the cost of running a car, insurance and even leisure costs. The cost of the commodities we buy may have soared but in comparison the cost of food has  dropped markedly and we no longer have to consider remortgaging the house if we want to splash out on a mango. 

    In the Victorian area, aside from the things that could survive weeks at sea- almost all our food came from these Isles- so besides things like Nutmeg we were pretty self sufficient. This was of course before many of the developments upon which modern farming is built- the land was farmed as intensively as possible but without the pesticides, fertilizers, medicines, machinery and vast fields of today farming and the production of food was much more reliant on more basic things such as man (and woman) power, resourcefulness, a decent horse, good weather and a lot of luck.

    It had lots of downsides; a drought or a flood could send wheat prices soaring and make bread a greater luxury and the high costs meant millions went hungry, many were malnourished and some starved. A burgeoning and increasingly industrialised population needed cheap food and farming raced to keep up with feeding all those hungry framework knitters.

    Our countryside still had lots of farmland birds- but during the Victorian era their populations were already in decline- the trade-off between our wildlife and our need to feed a  predominantly urban population had begun- and it’s rumbled on ever since. On the plus side our great-great-grandparents probably didn’t starve to death but on the downside you have to travel a long way to encounter a corncrake.

    And that’s sort of where we’re at today- the decline of farmland species continues, but instead of paying a lot for food, we’re paying a little- and for many of us it still seems too much. Acquiring food has become less about survival and more about begrudgingly paying yet another household bill- it’s a notion perpetuated by the supermarkets where seemingly low prices are emblazoned across our TVs, magazines, billboards, buses and brains in an attempt to get us through the supermarket door.

    But when you think about it, when you actually break down your shopping bill, our food IS cheap- so cheap we take it for granted, we over indulge and  we waste it. Anyone who’s ever tried growing a few vegetables will testify that it’s not easy and it’s not cheap- yet we rarely stop and ask ourselves how some of these intriguingly uniform vegetables can be grown, transported, clean, packaged and sold to us for so little- and yet STILL allow a bumper profit for the retailer. If we did stop and think we’d realise it’s the farmer who is forced to produce something for next to nothing and share the burden with our dwindling birds.

    So this year, lets try to make a conscious effort to think about where our food comes from, all of it. We’re getting good at being suspicious of cheap meat, and some of us have got better at checking how far our haricot beans have travelled, where our chicken was reared, or how our fish was caught. It’s good to scrutinise, in fact scrutinising your food is a good thing for UK farmers. British food is produced relatively near to you, and to a high standard.

    Farmers that are paid fairly don’t have to scrape a small profit by damaging our environment. They’re also better placed to reverse this long-standing trend and help out our  farmland birds. Best of all if we ask the right questions, make the right demands, and where necessary pay a little bit more we can still have inexpensive food, happier farmers, and an improved environment- something our poor mango-deprived forbears could only dream of.