OPINION: Need to dispel myths about man and nature

The Harvest series of three programmes on BBC2 should help burnish the image of British farming.

Made by the same production team that produced Jimmy’s Farm and Global Harvest, also with Jimmy Doherty, it took an adult view of our industry and informed viewers about modern farming and its contribution towards our diet and our economy.

It is gratifying to see some departments in the BBC view agriculture in a positive light.

Meanwhile we are still vilified by other parts of the media because of our alleged disregard for wild creatures and the cavalier way we are said to destroy nature.

I know I am preaching to the converted in this magazine, but in the hope that some thoughts may escape into the wider world let us consider nature and our relationship with it.

Humans have multiplied and are now heading for a population of seven billion and beyond by selecting those aspects of nature that provide us with food. Moreover scientists and plant breeders have improved productivity, again by selection and breeding, so that, so far, most of us have been able to eat every day. In other words our very survival depends on us managing nature to the point when some may say it’s not natural any more.

Badgers, not farmers, should be blamed for the hedgehog decline

In the same way, when “society” decides that some plants or wild creatures are more attractive than others and protects them by custom or law, those species multiply and become dominant in their environment. The removal of the natural predators that would control their numbers gives them a huge advantage and plants and creatures that were attractive in small numbers become a menace.

Take cats, for instance, beloved by elderly ladies. When they go out for their daily walk in the garden there is no doubt moggies catch and eat many song birds and that some of the decline in their number is because of this never-talked-about predation. The RSPB don’t mention it because those same old ladies leave them money in their wills.

The same is true of hawks. It is probably true that gamekeepers reduced their numbers when they were allowed to because of the damage they caused to game birds. Now hawks are protected, song birds have become their prey again. But birders complain that lesser numbers of small birds is all the fault of farmers and our so-called destruction of habitats.

And so it is with badgers. It has been estimated that since the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 the number of badgers in the UK has rocketed from about 50,000 to close to a million. During the same period the number of TB reactors among the British cattle herd has risen from a couple of hundred to more than 38,000 a year at a cost to the exchequer over 10 years of £500m – and rising, to say nothing of the heartache and worse suffered by farmers and their families.

Some of the “save the badger” fraternity have actually advocated clearing the countryside of cattle to give badgers free rein. They presumably refuse to recognise or don’t know that badgers’ favourite food is hedgehogs. Last week I saw two TV programmes deploring the decline in the hedgehog population, once again blaming farmers whereas they should surely have blamed badgers for much of it.

If we interfere with nature we upset its balance. That is obvious. We need, therefore, to rebalance and manage it for the benefit of mankind. Not perpetuate a problem we have created.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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