Cattle squeezed in favour of birds

A Teesside farmer who lost 1200 cattle and 500 sheep to foot-and-mouth now faces losing another 250 cattle because land he grazes falls within an area where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is creating an international nature reserve.

Jeff Horn, 61, has grazed his cattle on the abandoned former ICI trials farm at Saltholme, near Billingham, for the past 15 years and believes he has created a tenancy.

Last year he refused to renew an annual grazing licence with the owners of the land – the RSPB’s local partner Teesside Environmental Trust – and lodged a claim for adverse possession, also known as squatter’s rights.

Mr Horn said he disliked being told to reduce the size of his herd, and disputed the RSPB’s claim that the site was industrial wasteland.

“This land is farmland and always has been,” he said.

“So I believe we’ve created a tenancy.

We used to deal with an estates agent for ICI, but we have not paid rent on it for a number of years.

No one has sent me a bill.”

Mr Horn said he needed the Saltholme site for grazing all his cattle as the land at his Ivy Court Manor Farm nearby was needed to grow crops and winter feed for the beef herd.

He said that the RSPB had told him there should be no more than 40 cattle on the pasture and that the society would not negotiate with him.

“We would have farmed with them, but they have come down with an iron rod right across my back,” he said.

Mr Horn’s views however are not shared by TET or the RSPB, who are in the process of creating a 1000-acre bird reserve – the largest wetland restoration project in the north.

Last week they took him to Middlesbrough County Court, where Mr Horn was told to remove his cattle from the land by 30 November.

A spokesman for the RSPB said:

“We weren’t looking for this dispute.

It was created by the grazier himself when he refused to renew an annual licence and lodged his claim for adverse possession.”

But, he added, it was “still possible” that the society could reopen negotiations with Mr Horn.

“We need grazing to maintain the wet grassland,” he said.

“But 250 cattle on this site is far too many.”

Mr Horn is now considering his options.

“The problem is I’m fighting someone who’s got £60m a year in subscriptions,” he said.

“It seems that birds are more important than humans and that common sense has gone out of the window.”