Guy SmithGuy Smith

Is it just me or does anyone else find farming just a bit too relentlessly competitive for comfort?

From having your stock judged at the local show to the best farm competition at the local ag discussion group.  From comparing wheat yields in the pub at harvest time to a chat over the gate with a neighbour about who took the better first-cut of silage. From the claims about who sold their rape just as the price peaked to working out whose beast got top price at market. The pressure not to be the duffer can seem endless.

You wonder if other professions share this all-consuming competitive streak? Do accountants gather at their local annual bookkeepers’ convention to enter their most promising young clerks for the “Best auditor in class” award? Do taxi drivers have the equivalent of our ploughing matches – meeting, perhaps, in car parks on the edges of towns to see who can drive the straightest while discussing immigration with the judges in the back?

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There are some farm competitions that have mercifully died a death. A few decades ago, a national company ran a competition in Farmers Weekly with a title along the lines of “Farmer’s Wife of the Year”. It saw farmers nominating their wives – who were then judged on criteria that I won’t repeat here.

When I heard about this piece of unbridled chauvinism, I couldn’t help but smirk that the prize was “an- all-expenses-paid trip for two” to a ploughing event in Denmark. Our fathers certainly new how to romance their womenfolk.

On the subject of dubious gender portrayals, there was also the Young Farmers race in the grand ring of my local show in the 1970s where a tied and bound female Young Farmer was literally manhandled over an obstacle course by competing packs of male Young Farmers. You wonder if EL James, who recently penned 50 Shades of Grey, was watching ringside.

But just recently I’ve come across an organised challenge I’m very much in favour of. It is the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GCWT) Big Farm Bird Count.

The idea is that for 30 minutes in mid-February you stand in a spot on your farm for 30 minutes to count the number of birds you see. So I duly took the binoculars down to our 25 acres in the middle of the marsh to see what I could spot.

In short, I started with a flock of about 70 lapwing enjoying some low-lying winter sun on some winter wheat and finished with a single barn owl quartering our ELS margins at dusk.  I saw 24 species in all.

The competitive bit comes when the GCWT announces the results in April. This year, a commendable 950 farmers took part, identifying 127 different species. The most common spotted bird was the blackbird, while at the rarer end of the spectrum there were bitterns and whooper swans. Interestingly, thirteen species of raptor were seen. As ever, I found myself comparing my haul with others to see how I’d fared.

Obviously the Big Farm Bird Count isn’t actually a competition. There are no individual prizes to be won, but you could argue that, collectively, there is a worthwhile reward for all of us.

I have long been of the view that farmers are not involved enough when it comes to assessing and auditing the biodiversity on their farms. Too often we leave it to those who have vested interests in talking up the negatives rather than celebrating what is there. Many of us are a bit mystified by the “Farm wildlife at record lows” headlines in the press, but how many of us get involved in initiatives to publicise our conservation record?

So I’ll end by urging you all to get involved in the Big Farm Bird Count next year. Don’t just be proud of the wildlife on your farms, be loud as well.

Guy Smith

Guy comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-Sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip. He is vice-president of the NFU.