It’s uncanny. It’s always on a Saturday. Halfway through my first glass of wine as I try to unwind with friends. Do they have me under CCTV surveillance?
Tring Tring. “Sheep in the lane again,” quips a friend.
I pick up the phone. “Is that SJ Carr or FJ Carr?” My pulse quickens. I recognise the voice; it’s not sheep in the lane – it’s Big Brother.
“This is SJ Carr,” I say, hoping that the man on the other end of the line cannot detect the irrational fear that is suddenly gripping me.
“I am from the Rural Payments Agency,” says the voice, “and you, along with eight other farms in Sussex and three farms in Kent have been selected for a BPS inspection. I am coming on Monday and I am required to give you 48 hours’ notice.”
My first thought is surprise at the speed of this inspection – I’d only submitted the claim a couple of weeks earlier. My second thought is that, if 48 hours’ notice of an inspection is required, he can’t actually come until Monday evening. My third thought is – am I being targeted as I only had an RPA sheep and goats movement inspection recently? But I don’t say anything. Not to Big Brother.
“If you have the right to come, then of course you must come,” I say. “But why the rush? It’s not like I can change anything.”
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Apparently, it’s to make sure people don’t plough up crops or make other changes before they get there.
There is a cold, measured quality to his voice.
This is crazy, I think. Farmers are paid the same BPS whether they grow any food or not. They are also paid the same amount of money for every acre whether it is wheat, barley, oats, fallow, permanent or temporary pasture. Is this man simply being paid to make sure that I have put the right code in each box on every line of my claim form? But I don’t say anything. Not to Big Brother.
“What exactly are you coming to look at?” I stutter, trying desperately to sound as casual and carefree as possible.
Arable cropping and fallow areas, he replies off-hand. He won’t be looking at permanent pasture, but will look at any temporary grass just in case I’ve got large buildings or caravans where I stated on the form that I had a wheat crop.
I wonder why I would be more likely to erect a building or station a caravan on fallow or arable land or temporary pasture, rather than on permanent pasture. But I don’t say anything. Not to Big Brother.
“Do you want me to come with you?” I ask nervously.
“It can be helpful if the holding is scattered geographically,” he replies.
The thought of being cooped up with this man for hours as we trail around my extremely scattered holding fills me with dread. Just two minutes on the phone to him has reduced me to pulp. “We are busy haymaking,” I say, hoping that this will be a good enough excuse.
My friends saunter in from the patio wondering where I have got to. Their jovial conversation ceases abruptly as they spy my ashen face. They listen in horror as I start to gabble hopelessly.
“Yes, of course you can come look around whenever you like. My fields are yours to look at in as much detail as you wish. If you need any help please give me a ring. Here is my mobile number so that you can get me 24/7. Nothing is too much trouble. I have nothing to hide. Thank you so much for ringing me at my home on a Saturday evening. So considerate of you not to interrupt my working week. I am a good farmer. I love you, Big Brother.”
Stephen Carr farms an 800 hectare sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife Fizz. Part of the farm is converted to organic status and subject to a High Level Stewardship Agreement.