OPINION: Lamb laughter hides farm inspection anxiety, writes Stephen Carr

The orphan lamb, sporting an Easter bonnet, was settled in its pram. Gathered inside the kitchen for a late Saturday morning brunch, Mr (Single Business Identification No) 2376498 laughed with farming friends as their children fitted the lamb with a bib and gave it a bottle of milk substitute.

“Don’t see a double tag in its ears yet; call the RPA,” joked one of the group. Mr 2376498 managed to laugh off this unwelcome reference to one of the all-powerful inspectorates that had gradually come to haunt his farming life.

Within the past six months Mr and Mrs 2376498 had experienced a visit from the Rural Payments Agency, who had given them a full-blown “tapes and measures” check of their field boundaries and cropping codes (with the threat of deductions to their single farm payment if any discrepancies were found).

There had also been the yearly inspection for the Red Tractor Scheme, Combined Crops Assurance Scheme (ACCS) and Farm Assured British Beef Lamb (FABBL). Similarly, the Soil Association had carried out its annual inspection before it would re-issue them with an organic trading certificate. Natural England had inspected them for Entry Level Stewardship Scheme compliance. Trading Standards had carried out a “spot check” of their sheep birth, death and movement records. Even Sainsbury’s had wanted to see a “carbon footprint audit” before it would accept their beef.

Mr 2376498 looked across the kitchen table at his business and life partner, Mrs 2376498, her dark shoulder length hair radiant in the spring sunshine. She was busy reassuring the farm border collie as it was dressed by the children as an Easter bunny with sticking-up ears and a brown fur coat.

The phone rang and, as she picked it up, she remarked: “Don’t tell me. Sheep out on the cricket pitch – again!”

A ripple of laughter went but it died away as her face darkened. “Darling, it’s the Environment Agency.” Covering the receiver with her hand, she whispered: “They want to inspect the farm next week. Just routine.” She handed him the receiver.

These all-powerful inspectorates had gradually come to haunt his farming life

“Yes, 2376498, that’s me. Oh, have a heart – it’s a Saturday.” Immediately he wished he had not questioned whether it was reasonable for an Environment Agency inspector to ring him at the weekend. He knew that he mustn’t antagonise this man. If a fault were found, it was at an inspector’s “individual discretion” as to whether the Rural Payments Agency were informed. Once the RPA was involved, any contravention of regulations could lead to a cross-compliance penalty and, in an extreme case, complete forfeit of the single farm payment and a ban on making future claims.

Trying to sound as casual as he could, Mr 2376498 asked what the inspector wished to see. “Oh, nothing too exacting,” came the reply. “Diesel storage facilities, your chemical and animal medicine stores, records of hazardous waste movements, any FYM and or fertiliser storage, organic manure spreading risk maps – you’re farming in an NVZ there, I believe?”

“OK,” gulped Mr 2376498. “See you on Thursday.” He hung up the phone and stood there, staring unseeing at the wall.

The laughter of their friends drew them to the window. The orphan lamb had been joined in the pram by the Easter bunny collie and the pair were now being wheeled round the garden. The friends had got out their phones and were taking pictures. Inside the house, Mr and Mrs 2376498 hardly saw the charming spectacle. Their minds now raced with anxious thoughts about the outcome of yet another vital farm inspection.

Stephen Carr runs an 800ha (1,950-acre) sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife, Fizz. A third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.

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