14 November 1997

Strong words for minister

The Dalrymples are

becoming increasingly

disillusioned with the new

administration in Whitehall

as pressures on hill farmers

mount up. Allan Wright

reports

HOUSING cattle for the winter, pregnancy diagnosing suckler cows and monitoring the mating progress of ewe lambs are filling the days at Kings Arms.

But the daily round is doing little to shift a growing sense of despondency felt by Robert and Caroline Dalrymple about the future of hill farming.

Gnawing worries about the governments attitude to farming came to a head while listening to a Radio 4 interview with minister of agriculture, Jack Cunningham.

"We heard a fair and accurate account of the current state of affairs from a hill farmer and then we listened to a minister who made it quite clear that he does not care very much whether or not hill farming survives.

"There was a lot of talk about what the Labour government had done for the British beef industry, how BSE would soon be a thing of the past, and that exports would be back to normal in five years. Can he not realise that a lot of us will not be here in five years," says Robert.

"I accept that the £50 extra BSE payment on the HLCA for suckler cows last year was a one-off piece of compensation. But, putting that to one side, it is ridiculous to freeze HLCA payments for three years without even an increase to cover inflation.

"On top of that, we have cast cows now worth little over £300 where it used to be at least £500 and often much more. Mr Cunningham said that sheep were doing all right and again he is wrong. Our accounts show quite clearly that we have sold more lambs and received an extra first payment of sheep annual premium this year, yet our total sheep income is down by more than £3000.

Caroline points out that they have spent more than usual in the past year on repairs and improvements. "But that will all stop among hill farmers. They are facing a year ahead with a big cut in subsidy and no early prospect of a rise in market prices. We keep saying it, but rural businesses and whole communities are at risk."

If minister Cunningham was unpopular in the Dalrymple household, a stronger word is needed for their feelings about local MP George Foulkes. Here the issue is the export of electricity from Scotland to Northern Ireland and the massive pylons to carry it across a huge swath of Ayrshire.

"We think we will see five pylons, maybe more, although none will be on our land. George Foulkes was one of the main supporters of the campaign to stop the pylons when he was in opposition. But now he shrugs and just accepts the recently announced government line which is to allow the pylons," claims Caroline.

"People come to the area because of its beauty. Local people enjoy the unspoiled nature of the countryside and are about to see it sacrificed for commercial gain," she adds.

Meanwhile, on the subject of practical farming, pregnancy diagnosis of 193 cows and heifers has revealed 12 not-in-calf. "In the past, they would have been down the road to the cull market at £500 or more. But with a maximum price of £300 you have to think about keeping at least the younger ones rather than seek a bought in replacement at about £700," says Robert who has not made a final decision.

"One of those not-in-calf is one of our pedigree Charolais. She is huge and would have made almost £1000 in the cull ring before BSE," says Caroline.

The Kings Arms team is coming to the end of housing the cows and their calves, a policy dictated by sheep needing the remaining grass of the season, a wish to avoid poaching the land, and for the best growth and welfare of the cattle.

Spring-born calves are being weaned at housing with the later ones continuing to have access to their mothers although penned separately. "We have a mixture of slats and straw yards for both cows and calves," says Robert who is horrified at the proposal that calves above 200kg must have 3 sq m of space from January, 2004.

"That is nonsense. Cattle must be penned quite tightly for slats to work. They will get very dirty at 3sq m and our calves are averaging about 300kg," he says, pointing to a pen which will hold nine until Christmas and eight thereafter. The new regulations would limit the number to five.

"We are in the business of efficient weight gain for beef cattle or sheep. To do that we look after them and feed them well. Doing anything which harms the welfare of the animals reduces my income. Slats are essential for cattle in the west of Scotland where we have to import most of our straw and, despite any public perception, they provide a good environment for cattle and an efficient management system," says Robert.n

Robert Dalrymple is happier with the state of his silage than he is with the governments lack of commitment to hill farming.

FARM FACTS

&#8226 Kings Arms and Crailoch Farms, at Ballantrae on the Ayrshire coast, run as one 262ha (650 acre) unit by Robert and Caroline Dalrymple.

&#8226 Grass the only crop – for grazing and high quality silage. It is an early area but land near the sea is sandy and burns easily in summer.

&#8226 Suckler herd of 180 cows mated to Charolais sires and progeny sold as yearlings.

&#8226 Sheep flock of 900 Mule and Texel-cross ewes lambing from mid-February. About 300 hoggs are also lambed.

&#8226 Farm staff of three.