Friday, December 01, 2006

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The Horse Doctor is Chairman (woman? Chair? Frog?) of the Stapledon Society this year. It sounds really impressive, but actually means she has to go to a couple of meetings and smile politely at the other committee members. As far as I can work out, all the society does is organise a lecture once a month at the Institute of Rural Science in Aberystwyth. Sometimes, when the topic looks interesting or they're worried not enough people will turn up, I go along and listen.

Yesterday evening, the lecture was given by our boss, and it was all about sustainable management of heather moorlands. Riveting, I hear you say, and I have to admit I found it hard to keep awake. I did however manage to glean some interesting information.

The UK is home to 75% of the world's heather moorland habitat, most of that being in Scotland.
Heather moorland is not a natural habitat - it's man made by managed grazing, mostly by sheep.
The EU, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that heather moorland should be maintained, if not increased.
Heather moorland has been in decline since the end of the second world war, when the UK government's main priority was maximising farm production (not unsurprisingly) and money was given to 'improve' the uplands - i.e. plough up the heather, put in drainage and plant grass.

The problem arises, as ever, when the politics of the age start to interfere. Heather moorland is in decline largely because it is no longer an economically viable way to farm. But 'the people' whoever they are, love the image of rolling heather clad hills and wish to preserve them. Since we're destroying them by overstocking - that is, putting too many animals on them (usually sheep), then surely the thing to do is to get rid of some of those animals. Problem solved.

Err, no.

The point that so few well-intentioned eco-warriors seem to understand is that sheep are a farmer's livelihood. Our open borders mean that the price achievable for a carcass is quite low. Tell a farmer to grow half as many sheep and you're effectively telling him to take a fifty percent cut in pay.

OK. We decide that heather moorlands are something we, as a society, really want. So pay the farmer to manage the moorland that way. Compensate him for his reduced income. Well, that's what's been going on in the hills for the last fifteen years or more. It's all part of that wonderful invention, the European Union Common Agricultural Policy, which swallows up by far the biggest chunk of the EU budget and which has the World Trade Organisation all in a dither because it basically puts up a barrier to poorer nations selling their produce to us.

There are other problems with simply reducing stocking rates, too. The most fundamental of which is that it doesn't actually restore heather moorland. After a while, the smaller number of animals grazing start to decline too. Heather is an odd plant. To regenerate properly, and produce lots of tasty and nutritious young shoots for the lambs to grow big and fat on, it needs to be beaten about a bit. Grouse moors in Scotland and Yorkshire are routinely burnt to allow fresh heather to come through. Well-meaning environmentalists, keen to protect ground-nesting birds, have persuaded the government to limit the times when burning is allowed, and in Wales, where it rains a lot, this means that burning is essentially futile.

So the heather doesn't regenerate. The existing plants get old and woody - rank is the technical term - and stop providing any nutrition for the sheep. They don't thrive, and so achieve a lower price at market. And the subsidy money no longer covers the difference between the higher and lower stocking rates. Farmers start to make a loss.

There are other confusing factors which make the whole thing even more of a mess. Introduce cattle into the system, and the heather improves, since cattle tramping digs up the old plants and allows new ones to grow. But cattle ruin the moorland for birdlife - one of the things the well-intentioned environmentalists are keen to see increasing. Manage the land for the birds, and you need to pay the farmers a large sum of money just to keep alive.

Actually, the talk was quite interesting, even if some other members of the audience fell asleep. Our boss is perhaps not the best public speaker and I suspect both his tone, and his tendency to say 'err' every second word didn't help. But he soldiered on, and I listened and learned. And then we had questions.

The first person to put his hand up was trouble. I could tell just by his beard. It wasn't a manly beard, like the ones Mr Stuart and I sport. Nor was it the sort of pseudo-intellectual beard favoured by Mr Rickards (and which Bryon failed to grow). No this was the beard of someone who hugs trees and knits yoghurt for a living. The beard of a man who is sure of himself. And his question?

Why don't we just sack all the farmers and put the money to better use? They stopped subsidising the steelworkers and the coal miners; why should we throw money at farmers?*

Now, if you're a card-carrying paid-up member of the left wing intelligentsia these days, this is a hot topic. There's a simmering resentment at the way Mrs Thatcher** treated the miners (and the steelworkers, and the UK motoring industry and god alone knows how many other vested interests). It's the same chippiness that lead to the hunting ban - not out of any sane argument for animal rights, but from a deep-seated desire for revenge. Since the Tory party were routed, Labour had to take this revenge on their supporters instead, and amongst the obvious targets farmers and farming were high on the list.

I'll declare an opinion here. I think that subsidising farmers is just as daft as subsidising coal miners or steelworkers. I am unashamedly right-wing in my dislike of all state intervention. But by that I also mean the mountain of regulation heaped upon our industries. I mourned today when I heard that the 'community' of South Uist had bought 'their' island - and I use those inverted commas advisedly. The vast bulk of the money for this state-mandated buyout came from the lottery and Highland and Islands Enterprise, so basically the island has been nationalised. It will never function economically without state funding. But that is another argument for another day.

The point is that my bearded antagonist honestly thought that the answer to the problem of the Welsh moorlands was to 'sack' the farmers. I'm not entirely sure what he meant by this, since the farmers in question are to a man self-employed. They own their land. By and large their parents and grandparents owned it, managed it and created the landscape so beloved of the well-intentioned environmentalists over the past hundreds of years. They can't be sacked. Nor do they have the same inbuilt propensity for waste and maladministration that state-run enterprises with their bottomless-pocket state backing have.

So did he mean that they should be bought out? Should the Welsh Assembly, or even the government in Westminster, nationalise the land and throw it open to the urban masses for their weekend entertainment. It's a perfectly reasonable suggestion - up there with nationalising the railways, steel and coal industries. Past experience suggests that it wouldn't work - governments by and large are not good at running businesses. But that's never stopped governments from interfering before.

Or perhaps he merely meant that we should stop paying the subsidies and let the farmers go to the wall. Starve them off the land by destroying their markets. If the research done on sustainable moorland management has shown anything it is that farmers cannot farm the uplands without some form of handout. Maybe in the long run it would be a kindness to let them die out. But then why should a farmer, a landowner, continue to manage his land in the way you want him to, if to do so means his children starve? There are ways to make money in the uplands, but they will result in a countryside that is not at all user-friendly: windfarms; grouse shoots; a return to the drainage and 'improvement' of the fifties and sixties, with large inputs of nitrogen fertiliser. Ah, but legislation prevents the farmer from pursuing these money-making activities. Cut off his subsidies and he will wither and die.

But in the short term, who's going to deal with the suicides, the destitution, the emptying of the countryside and the total collapse of the rural economy? At least when you close a mine or a steelworks it's relatively easy to pump regeneration money into the local towns, which, incidentally, is what Mrs Thatcher's government did and got no credit for. Out here in the back of beyond, the community is spread thin and the transport infrastructure is poor. You can't build a call centre in Ponterwyd and expect people to commute from miles around to work in it - that's not economically viable.

Our current administration disbanded the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, merging it into the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That's set to become just the Department for the Environment in the near future, reflecting the current obsession with all things global-warming. Agriculture is no longer considered a strategic industry in this country, and I can see the argument for that, even if I disagree with it. We've not had a world war for half a century - food supplies from overseas would never be disrupted like they were when Hitler was around. And it's cheaper by far to get our food from somewhere else; it makes no sense to grow things here.

But we are a curiously schizophrenic nation. We demand the highest of standards for our own food production - 'gold plating' the EU requirements to an absurd degree. But we don't give a rat's ass about the stuff that comes in from overseas. Actually, we're not allowed to, by World Trade Organisation rules (those rules that everyone else pays only lip service too - again another rant for another day). If we said to the Danish that they couldn't sell their bacon over here because they still allow the use of farrowing crates, we'd suffer from enormous fines from both the EU and WTO. But our own pig farmers have been banned from using them for decades. Our abattoirs are monitored by one of the most highly-skilled and expensive workforces around, making sure that nothing of the animal gets into the food chain that shouldn't. But meat shipped over from South America is not checked at all. Try stopping the import of fruit form North Africa because the farms there pay a slave wage and the world will be up in arms, but offer less than five pounds an hour to a British worker and you'll go to jail.

Farmers in the UK today have to comply with an almost endless stream of legislation - some of it self-conflicting so that to follow one rule means to break another (that's 'joined up government' for you). And yet at the same time we open our borders to pretty much anything that's cheap, regardless of how it was produced, using what chemicals or child/slave labour force. And to a large extent this is not the fault of government, at least directly, but our own. We buy the cheap stuff from the supermarket, and shun the quality produce from just down the road.

The reason why our farmers need subsidies is not because they are lazy, or bad farmers, or so they can get fat and swan around in Range Rovers at the taxpayers expense. It is because they are burdened with so much regulation and bureaucracy there would simply be no agriculture in the UK otherwise. And it is because the Great British Public is overwhelmingly interested only in the most crass measure of value for money - to whit, price.

I don't think we should put barriers up to trade from overseas. I do think we should be prepared to put our hands in our pockets and pay a fair price for what we want. Be that ethically produced pork or sustainably managed heather moorlands.


* I apologise for taking this long to get to the point. I'm working on no lunch and one strong martini.
** yes, I know it's been more than fifteen years since she was deposed, but these elephants have long memories, and her shadow was cast very long.

4 Comments:

Blogger Vincent said...

There was something on More4 News this evening about the guy who set up The Big Issue doing some sort of scheme with independent local shops to help the compete with the likes of Tesco and some woman from New Economics something-or-other pointed out the local benefits of this because money paid out to a multinational immediately leaves the local community, whereas money spent with local businesses recirculates within that same community.

To be honest I wasn't really paying attention, but it does show there is a case for paying more for local produce, because you will actually see that money back in the way it helps grow the local economy.

When I did economics, I remember farm produce being help up as the perfect example of a free market product because an apple is an apple wherever it comes from (okay, not strictly true, but the product isn't dependent on the result of technology, manufacture or brand). Yet, ironically, farming gets the biggest subsidies because crop yield is unpredictable year on year. Economic protectionism is more to do with large industry politics - CAP is an inefficient, money-eating dinosaur, yet the French won't scrap it because their agricultural industry is too big, too militant and benefits too much from the status quo.

Along with the issue about the ecology of heather, this neatly illustrates why anyone who would want to get into politics is insane, because there is no solution to any of this, just alternative ways of muddling along.

December 01, 2006 11:51 pm  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

A lot of good points to think about here James.

December 02, 2006 1:53 am  
Blogger Trace said...

What Sandra said.

December 03, 2006 4:53 pm  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Copycat!

December 04, 2006 2:14 am  

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