Opinion: Life used to be so much simpler before civil servants got involved

I seem to have more Victor Meldrew moments the older I get, when I find myself furiously muttering “I don’t believe it”.

I set off reading Defra’s How to check and change your hedge information with a sinking feeling that my medication might not cope, and halfway down the first page I thought I was going to die.

Here was the Rural Payments Agency telling me its information was definitely incomplete and probably wrong.

Well, it’s definitely wrong for a farm for which I do the Basic Payment Scheme application, because I checked.

Of course, if you are not using hedges for environmental focus areas (EFA), or Countryside Stewardship (CS), it doesn’t matter – which means for a lot of people, it will matter.

See also: Advice on hedges for BPS and Countryside Stewardship 2018

This is so absurd that it must be a deliberate provocation. Kent has a fine tradition of peasant revolt, and we ought to be marching to London with our pitchforks and scythes. But we sigh and get on with it, and when we can’t understand, we turn to the “explaining BPS industry”.

Am I the only person who thinks it could have been much simpler? If you want to use them as EFA, nip round the farm and map your hedges, then measure them and put the length on the form.

It worked for the Entry Level Scheme (ELS), and we all know that if an inspector calls you need to have got it right.

All the resources that went into “mapping” these hedges, and will go into making the corrections, could have gone into getting CS application packs, agreements and payments out on time.

Years ago, when I was in France, for their equivalent of BPS, farmers were sent a paper set of aerial photos with their fields marked on. If a boundary was wrong, they just corrected it, sent it back and claimed.

This was when our scheme was already driving us mad. (Fancy a random bit of England attached to your farm, anyone?)

When the first stewardship scheme came out, I would meet the stewardship officer on the farm and we’d walk round and have a chat with the farmer.

We’d agree between us what would go in the application, and I’d go back and write it up. Simple.

That brings me to another Defra document, the Health and Harmony command paper. I could say a lot about this; how food production is mysteriously absent from a list of public goods, for example. But I’ll give it credit for asking the questions and putting the ball in our court.

So if you’re looking to make a response to Defra on future farm support, how about saying “take the current BPS and CS schemes – and do the exact opposite”?

Cumbersome schemes dictated from on high are frustrating and unworkable – start at farm level.

Have a set of maps to look at, and walk round the farm with someone you can agree with. Let farms set out their plans for productivity and the environment over five years, and apply for funding based on local needs with local advice.

This is already working for conservation in farm cluster groups, but with a little imagination it could extend to all farm support. Let people do what is right for their farm and you can still support real farming.

If you agree that it’s not just a Victor Meldrew complex to hate over-complication, please tell Defra, before the consultation expires on 8 May.

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