Killing of the Countryside
are commonly charged with destroying our environment. I'm a farmer.
I must plead guilty. However, I had an accomplice; I was the junior,
my senior partner denies all responsibility. Before you pronounce
sentence, and gather stones to throw at me, please consider the
started farming in 1964. Shortly afterwards our Government introduced
the Small Farms Scheme. We were encouraged, by financial inducements
(subsidies), to produce more food to feed the nation; to become more
efficient; and thereby improve our own standards of living. It
worked very well.
one: destruction of the wild flowers.
were encouraged to plough the old meadows and pastures and reseed. It
wasn't the ploughing and reseeding that killed the wild flowers; our
forebears had been doing that for hundreds of years. The new
"recommended" seed mixtures contained grasses developed
purposely to respond more productively to a higher fertiliser input.
That was the beginning of the end.
to this point many of us had the universal "little grey Fergie"
tractor and a finger-bar mower, or the equivalents in size and power,
much of our hay-making machinery was converted horse drawn tackle. The
heavier crops of grass needed more robust machinery; the first
capital outlay. To justify that, we had to keep more cattle and
sheep. To produce the extra crop to feed them we used more
fertiliser. (Can you see where this is going?) The resultant even
lusher grass could not be cut with the old mower, but the new drum
mowers could cope. The "little grey Fergie" couldn't carry
the heavier machine so we needed bigger tractors too; the second
capital outlay. To justify that, we needed to keep more livestock. To
feed them, we used more fertiliser. At this stage the grass
became so luxuriant that it could not be made into hay; the solution,
ensile it; requiring even bigger tractors, more machinery and
somewhere to store the silage; the third and major capital outlay. To
pay for all this, of course, we ended up keeping even more cattle
and sheep. To feed them we used even more fertiliser, taking two,
three or more cuts of grass.
effects on the health and welfare of the livestock are beyond the
scope of this article.
this time the wild flowers were long gone. Dense crops of lush grass
had smothered most of them. Taking two or more cuts, one early the
others later, ensured that the remainder could not set seed.
What else did we
lose? The small mammals and the unfledged birds that
lived in the grass were killed by the earlier, faster mowing; unable
to escape. Oh, I forgot, we also lost many of the insects that
relied on the wild flowers.
was declared policy of successive Governments. All farmers in the
country were encouraged to maximise output; we were the heroes of the
day; feeding the nation! Up here, in the hills, all those extra
animals received subsidies, based on numbers. Bank managers rubbed
their hands with glee. Farm business turnovers escalated but, so did
levels of debt.
two: degradation of hills, heath and moorland.
to popular opinion, few of the extra livestock were turned on to the
open moors. Research shows that increases in sheep numbers were due,
not to subsidies but, to an earlier increase in the price of wool. Now,
there was a real incentive to keep extra sheep.
or sixteen years ago policy changed direction. Governments began to
think "green". Instead of being encouraged to produce
food, we are now paid not to. Their environmental advisers declared
that the hills were "overgrazed", damaging the heather and
causing loss of "biodiversity". The simple solution; pay
farmers to reduce livestock numbers. Also refrain from traditional
management practices, such as burning and predator control without
sheep prefer short, sweet, grass; with fewer grazing animals the
surplus grass becomes rank and unpalatable. This has three
consequences: the rank grasses smother the more delicate plants thus
causing loss of biodiversity: the sheep won’t eat them from
choice, so they graze the heather instead, the very shrub to be
preserved: fewer animals, less dung; less dung, fewer insects; less
insects, fewer little birds. The more sheep removed the faster this
occurs. Some moor and heathland has already reverted to unsightly,
management, overprotected "predators" proliferate; the
feathered varieties are dramatically reducing the numbers of the
"prey" species. The badger robs any nest he can find on
the ground. True conservation permits control to achieve a productive
balance. Without proper management, dry dead grasses and old heather
become a severe fire risk, well demonstrated in England this last two
or three years.
is proven that a well-managed grouse moor carries the highest
biodiversity of plants, birds, mammals and invertebrates of any
in England and elsewhere, demonstrates why heather and other shrubs
regenerate better after burning. Chemicals in the smoke from the
burning parent plant activate the seed.2
research, carried out in England and Wales, on the dry matter
production of the principle moorland grasses and heather, shows how
one might calculate the stocking rate for any given moor in different
parts of the country. Every
moor is different.3
is all that ignored? Why must we have "one size fits all"
regulations? They don’t work.
and other farmers, am already being asked by walkers, "Where
have all the sheep gone and why are the hills becoming overgrown?"
explain patiently what is being done in the name of the taxpayer.
They are, naturally, appalled. They can see it for what it is;
economic and environmental stupidity. In effect, they pay for their
say "I was only obeying orders" is a poor defence. I am
still taking their money; I can ill afford not to. I’m guilty
I beg you, for the future; let farmers, not governments, farm. Save
some of your stones for those who gave me my orders.
Joint study; RSPB & Game Conservancy, published in The Journal
Applied Ecology, 2001.
Heather Trust Annual Report; 2004.
Institute of Applied Biologists 1995, ’96 &