TALKING POINT

11 June 1999




Ministers diet leaves bad taste

The appointment of Christine Gwyther as the first vegetarian agricultural minister of Wales (News, May 28) is arguably symptomatic of changing times. It is glaringly obvious to most people in Wales that employing Ms Gwyther for this post is as appropriate and tasteful as hiring a pork butcher to handle the catering at a barmitzvah.

The livestock producers of Wales are not advocating the disregard of arable farmers or the oppressive regulation of Ms Gwythers diet, but it must be recognised that when 90% of agricultural production in Wales is meat, there is a basic conflict of interests.

Most farmers do not find vegetarianism offensive and respect anyones right to adopt it as a lifestyle. However, Ms Gwyther is a vegetarian due to moral, rather than medical reasons, and has "gradually lost interest in the taste of meat". (Wales on Sunday, May 30 1999). Hardly the most enchanting advertisement for Welsh farming. It suggests someone who is prepared to have cast-iron principles until compromising them becomes personally and professionally beneficial.

Ms Gwythers decision to accept this cost seems to suggest a lack of integrity and interchangeable principles, which concerns and saddens Welsh farmers. Clearly a vegetarian fibre-rich diet does not automatically precede a wealth of moral fibre.

Rhys A Parry

Gwerninog Farm, Llansoy, Usk, Gwent.

Reasonable line is starting point

I was listening to Today on Radio 4 recently on which a Welsh farmers leader was expressing concern that the agriculture minister in the new Welsh Assembly is a vegetarian. His points were well made and relevant but I had to score the interview a draw because the interviewer went for the reasonable argument. That is bound to find favour among the vast majority who do not understand the underlying situation.

We all know this line of argument well because it is firmly ingrained in our national psyche. On this occasion it ran: Is it reasonable to challenge someones ability to do this job just because they are vegetarian? They may have many excellent qualities and be right for the job.

Of course, we privately acknowledge that this could be true and so we let the matter rest without giving it the airing it deserves. In reality this comment should be the starting point for a debate to assess the merits of the candidate, where being a vegetarian is merely one factor. Unfortunately, we all lead lives that are rushed and so the soundbite rules. I was quietly convinced that the Welsh farmers were wholly justified in their concerns, but would probably have done nothing more were it not for the arrival of the Labour Partys pamphlet serving as a Euro election wake-up call and entitled Taking a lead in Europe.

In light of such evidence, I think it is reasonable to assume that Welsh farmers have every right to be worried. So, by the way, do all the rest of us. Much is spoken of the process of dumbing down in public life. But surely there is legitimate cause for concern about the stature and experience of those who are hoping for us to give them the huge responsibility of running our country.

A J T Carter

Kings Farm, West Wellow, Romsey, Hants.

BSE inquiry is now a farce

How much longer must we wait before the BSE inquiry dithers to a conclusion? I believe that farm minister, Nick Brown, has made a serious mistake in allowing a further extension for what has now turned into a complete farce. When this inquiry was first announced, it was welcomed by farmers as a way to solve a very awkward farming problem.

Beef production was once a stalwart of British agriculture and also enjoyed a good reputation as a wholesome and safe part of our diet. Bungling politicians and bureaucrats were quickly able to destroy that image during the BSE crisis. Millions of tonnes of rendered beef at astronomical cost to the public Exchequer later, we still have no conclusion.

Farmers cannot be expected to bear the burden of other peoples mistakes forever.

The BSE inquiry should be told to pack its bags as quickly as possible and issue an urgent interim report before the BSE inquiry itself becomes a bigger farce than the BSE crisis.

Arnold Pennant

Nant Gwilym, Tremeirchion, St Asaph, Denbighshire.

Combine crops need subsidies

Do not be fooled. Without subsidies, combineable crop farming will fail. We cant compete against big climatic advantages. Guaranteed warm sunshine cuts labour and machinery costs and saves £s on disease and weed control.

Our window for cutting wheat is 150 hours, if you are lucky. In North America and Australia, it is between 600 and 800 hours (ideal for contract farming). They can make profits with wheat yields of 1.25t/ha and prices of £64/t. The wheat is hard and ready saleable, their combines get no work and they do not need loss-making break crops.

George Scales

Cobblers Pieces, Abbess Roding, Ongar, Essex.

How about a cartoon book?

I come from a family which is now, sadly, one generation removed from the land. I spent much of my boyhood working on my relatives farm. One by one I watched the farms closed and sold.

But because of my own strong attachment and interest in farming matters I occasionally buy a copy of farmers weekly. On a light-hearted note I would like to say how much I enjoy the cartoons. They are excellent, amusing, humorous and well illustrated. If the cartoons were collected together in a book I would buy one.

The British Press has a long and honourable tradition of cartoons of lampoonery, wit, sarcasm, ridicule, spoofery, political and social comment, good natured leg pulling, gentle self deprecation and mockery. You uphold these traditions with your excellent cartoons and I hope that you will make them available to the public in the form of books sold through newsagents and bookshops like the popular Giles Xmas albums.

Paul &#42 Metson

21 Valley Mount, Harrogate, North Yorks.

Kiwi milk on Virgin flights

I was interested in your photo and caption (News, May 21) regarding Virgin Trains and its commitment to British farmers. I wish this was also true of Virgin Airlines when I flew back from Johannesburg to London. I thought I was being served good milk from Devon, England but when I looked closer it was from New Zealand. Does this still apply with Virgins latest Back British Farmers campaign?

Mike Lewis

Somerset Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, The Old School, School Road, Westonzoyland, Bridgwater, Somerset.

Dont support inefficiency

Your leader (May 14) on capping the support payments of larger-scale farmers in favour of smaller ones, has a big flaw. There is no mention of efficiency. So many smaller farmers are unaware of the fact that they are running a business and that in doing so they have to make a profit. The more they are assisted, the more they will continue to be oblivious to this vital fact. No-one wants to see the rural structure suffer by the demise of these small family farms but there could be parallels to draw with other businesses.

Village shops have been going out of business at an alarming rate driven to the wall by the absence of profit. The support from local councils with business rate reductions has come too late for many.

Do we expect our big multi-nationals to refuse some contracts in favour of the smaller manufacturing company which is having trouble surviving?

What about Manchester United providing financial assistance to Woking? I cant see any of this happening.

The world of business is a hard one and not to be entered by any one without full knowledge of the risks. Those farmers sons who go to agricultural college, and many dont, come home in the mistaken belief that they can run a business. College is often the beginning and the end of their business training as they rarely want to pay for further training. The insular nature of their business is also a disadvantage.

The problem is so multi-faceted that there is no easy answer. The subject of support payments has sparked much heated discussion over the years. Part of the solution must be education in business matters. Then if a profit cannot be made, at least as an average over three years, it should be a consideration to stop before more of the family capital worth is eroded, and the family is left with no business, no house and no trade or profession to follow.

Cheap food policy has always been put forward as an argument for support. While not arguing against that, we should not be supporting inefficiency.

Barrie Bishop

Mitre Farm Management, Coultings Cottage, Fiddington, Bridgwater, Somerset.

GM low risk, so low cost cover?

It was cheering to learn that any risks associated with genetically modified crops are vanishingly small, as explained by Mr Merritt of Monsanto in your Cereals 99 supplement (May 28).

Presumably that means his company will be able to negotiate accordingly low-cost insurance cover against any claims for damages resulting from the use of GM seed or food.

Such a precaution would do much to reassure the public. In addition consumers would gain much-needed confidence from knowing that sober-suited City actuaries were both confident in the seed companies generally and specifically in their ability to assess risk.

Peter Gill

Needwood House, North Hermitage, Shrewsbury.

Stop protecting sparrowhawks

Few would disagree with Simon Dee (Letters, May 28) when he says that, while efficient farming should continue, it should be accompanied by the maintenance of good wildlife habitats.

One small error, however. He said that great tits form the main prey of sparrowhawks and, because the great tit population has remained stable, this proves that sparrowhawks do not affect songbird numbers.

It would take the equivalent of 170m great tit-sized meals to satisfy the national population of sparrowhawks, clearly beyond the capacity of 3m pairs of breeding tits.

As shown by Continental and British studies (see The Sparrowhawk by Dr Ian Newton) the brunt of predation on farmland is borne, in roughly descending order, by house sparrow, songthrush, chaffinch, blackbird, skylark, yellowhammer, tree-sparrow and starling. If this list has a familiar ring it is, perhaps, because they form the core of species that the new conservationists weep over while celebrating the rise in predators.

Dr Newtons British study showed, on farmland, that great tits formed only 1.7% of prey, whereas the songthrush was nearly 13%, blackbird nearly 12% during the period April-August. For the rest of the year the great tit kill was 0.5% of all prey. The RSPB admit, that about 50% of songthrush mortality is through predation by sparrowhawks.

If we are to meet our obligations towards maintaining all wildlife species there must be not only habitat provision, but also sound wildlife management including, where necessary, the control of predation. One helpful step towards this would be the removal of protected status from the sparrowhawk.

G Main

Stone Cottage, Somersham, Ipswich, Suffolk.

Danger to great tits overstated

In his letter (May 28) Simon Dee informs us that research has found that sparrowhawks main prey are great tits. Of all the many birds that I have seen sparrowhawks kill, not one of them has been a great tit. There are still some of us who prefer to believe what we see, not what the researchers would have us believe.

James Stubley

20 East Street, Rippingale, Bourne, Lincs.

Wrong date for Limousin sale

We were surprised to learn from a recent issue (Stock and Sales, May 28) that we were planning our production sale from our Normande pedigree Limousin herd at Carlise on June 1. The sale of in-calf and bulling Limousin heifers will be held at Carlise on Friday July 9. We hope not too many prospective buyers were misled by the article but will come and join us and other consignors on July 9.

Norman and Elsie Cruickshank,

Normande Limousin, Cowford Farm, Cleghorn, Lanark.

Rambles help maintain paths

One of our members recently brought to my attention Peter Thompsons letter (Mar 12) criticising members of the Ramblers Association for not putting anything back in return for the pleasure that they receive from using countryside footpaths.

I am pleased to inform him and other interested readers that this is not the case. West Wilts RA group formed a working party in 1976 to assist with the maintenance of footpaths in the area. The working party, made up of RA members who have retired, still meets for a half day every week, fine or foul weather, to carry out rights of way maintenance in West Wilts on behalf of the Highway Authority.

Since 1984, when we began keeping records, the working party has completed about 1300 tasks including 700 stiles, 110 bridges, 223 signposts and 24 bridle/kissing gates. That is in addition to clearing many miles of overgrown paths; mainly of brambles, oilseed rape and maize.

We are not unique. There are numerous volunteer groups such as ours throughout the country helping to keep footpaths open, properly signposted and waymarked and in a good state of repair.

John Rowe

Secretary, West Wilts Group, The Ramblers Association, Oaklea, Trowbridge Lodge Drive, West Ashton Road, Trowbridge.

Landfill path has pitfalls

The article (Features, May 14) on making money from landfill paints a too optimistic a picture of landfill as a means of improving land and making easy money. I say this with over 25 years experience working on landfill sites of all types and trying to rescue those that have gone wrong.

Properly planned, and supervised, landfill can prove a successful method of restoring disused quarries and the like. Too frequently, left to unscrupulous contractors, it is a recipe for disaster.

Lifting low-lying land can reduce flooding and placing stone, sand or chalk under the topsoil might improve drainage. Most fill materials are, however, not free draining but do contain sufficient stone and concrete to render subsequent drainage difficult and expensive.

Good materials are snapped up quickly and what is left looking for a home is the dodgy stuff. Contractors are notoriously optimistic when it comes to describing materials. The heaviest clay is described as free-draining and unimaginable amounts of concrete, brick and rubble have to be hauled out of stone-free subsoil.

Traffic, dust and mud on roads are a constant source of irritation to neighbours. Too many unsuitable sites are being used for landfill resulting in land slippage and pollution problems that will inevitably fall on the land owner.

If anyone gets involved in a landfill project, make sure you have a properly drawn up contract with a reliable company. Even that will not completely relieve you of responsibility. If the company disappears or goes bust you will retain all the liability. Do not ignore the potential negative effect on the land value.

The history of landfill is a catalogue of short-term solutions and long-term headaches. Make sure you do not add to it.

S T Pool

Lea House, Wainstalls, Halifax, West Yorks.

No response to organic market

We have been growing organically for the past 23 years. At first, we experienced a steady increase in demand and during the past two years a meteoric rise for organic produce. Produce is imported from the rest of Europe not because its better quality (it is not) but because British farmers and growers do not seem to want to respond to the market and go organic. Why?

David Wenman

Scragoak Farm, Brightling Road, Robertsbridge, East Sussex.

Cash motivates Michael Eavis

We were amazed by your article "When milk and music meet" (Features, Apr 23) which so distorts the truth. There is only one reason why Michael Eavis invites 80,000 people (planning permission 100,000 this year) on to his farm each year. That is money – £85 per head.

But, for some of those who have to live in Pilton village and put up with crime, dirt and excrement which condemns the entire communitys life to a living hell for 10 days, it is a different story.

We would like to take issue with your comment that there were no more incidents than would occur in a town of the same size on a Saturday night. During the 1998 festival, there were 945 reported crimes.

That compares with the Bath and North East Somerset area where there were nine reported incidents during the same period. (Figures supplied by the Avon & Somerset Constabulary).

At the neighbouring Royal Bath & West Show, an event attended by nearly double the number of people over four days, the number of reported incidents was five.

We do not object to the holding of the festival.

However, it is far too large and, as a result, every possible planning condition – numbers, noise and hygiene – is contravened with impunity.

There have certainly been instances of violent crime and even fatalities.

One day, there will be a major tragedy so, until the local authority begin to exercise proper controls, most aspects of decent civilised behaviour will continue to be abused.

Frank Challenor

Cumhill Cottage, Pilton.Jim DowlingPilton Manor Vineyard.Richard SheldonPerridge House, Pilton.Dick SkidmoreWell Hayes Farm, Lower Westholme, Pilton.

ACCS shows we did job properly

To understand the importance of ACCS requires an understanding of risk. We are all accustomed to risk, and handle it differently.

There is a form of risk which is becoming more important. It is the question: "Did you do your job correctly?"

As you go about your work, ask: If I was accused of not doing this job properly, how would I prove that I had worked correctly? If I was accused by some expert of making mistakes, who could I turn to? Which of my friends/neighbours/salesmen/suppliers/advisors could I ask to vouch for me?

You would struggle to find any expert to contradict the expert. Then you will ask: Why did the NFU do nothing to help? But the NFU has done something about it – ACCS.

ACCS sets a standard for farmers to work to. It is not just a standard set by farmers for farmers, but set by farmers, and outsiders. Many farmers see this as a weakness but it is a strength. Because outsiders endorse the scheme, they will not accuse farmers who join the scheme of doing their jobs incorrectly.

It is impossible to eliminate risk completely but, for all practical purposes, ACCS removes risk. The alternative now being promoted is a retrograde step. It is all very well for farmers to say this is the standard we are going to work to, but if people outside farming do not accept it, we can still be faced with the accusation: You did not do your job correctly.

I am a working solicitor. My main area of professional work has been bedevilled in recent years by lack of an equivalent to ACCS.

Too late the solicitors NFU equivalent organisation has woken up to this and set up an ACCS-type scheme. For years solicitors have had to follow court cases and work out for ourselves what standard we should work to. I do not want to see farmers go down the route.

For your own sake, learn from the mistakes of others. The NFU has had the foresight to do something for your benefit and protection.

Embrace ACCS, and the schemes like it, and let them become a way of life for you. It is extra work you could do without but it is for your own benefit and protection.

J W Buckley

Throstle Cottage, Aketon, Pontefract, West Yorks.

Top tuition in sheep shearing

I have just completed the shearing course, organised by Cannington College and funded from Europe.

May I just say that this is an excellent course, and would recommend it to everyone. Even experienced shearers will learn a thing or two, such is the high standard of tuition.

Eleven of us started the course with no experience. After the three days, the eight people remaining could all shear a sheep to quite a good standard unaided – albeit slowly. Speed comes with experience. The art of shearing is hard work, but extremely rewarding and well worth learning.

If you live in the south-west, can spare a few days over a weekend and are keen to learn, give them a ring. If this proves popular it could be made national.

With all our thanks to the team.

Andrew Coombs

Three Tuns Farm, Emborough, Nr Bath, Somerset.

Compound feed hasnt hurt me

Your report "BSE never a human threat?" (News, May 21) perhaps means at last there is going to be serious questioning as to the origins of New Variant CJD.

I have never questioned that something appalling happened to the British cattle herd. The physical evidence was there for all to see. What I do question is whether BSE is the real culprit for New Variant CJD.

Some time ago I wrote to the BSE inquiry stating that over many years, I had occasionally sampled pig compound feed purchased by eating a few nuts at a time. Thus I have directly eaten infective meat and bonemeal, over a 20 year period. As yet, the only malady that affects my brain is the financial hell of pig farming.

I am sure that there must be thousands of farmers who over the years have sampled compound feed like myself. What about employees of the compound industry who would have worked with the substance? They may have inhaled dry matter dust or also sampled the finished product as part of quality control. If one then carries on to the urban population, how many consumed a bit of pet food, just to see what it tastes like. If this is correct, why have not all these people gone down with New Variant CJD?

I should be interested to hear what the experts have to say. I am convinced that history will eventually recall that never has so much hot air and money been expended on the matter of BSE.

In no way does this detract from the terrible deaths of millions of cattle, or the families whose loved ones have died from New Variant CJD.

David Turton

Oast House, Egypt Farm, Rushlake Green, Heathfield, East Sussex.

Abstain from Euro elections

I am urging farmers and those within the agricultural and land use industries to abstain from voting at this years European elections.

That is because the UK government has opted out of more EU schemes and because Prime Minister Tony Blair and farm minister Nick Brown have distanced themselves from those aged over 55 who have been forced out of their farms. All they are left with is a jobseekers allowance.

FW has written time and again in respect of our farmers having a level playing field with regard to imports. The situation seems to be becoming worse as displayed in the pig industry.

The Lib-Dem manifesto is dead in the water as is the Tories manifesto.

Why should those within rural society support MEPs to join the Euro gravy train while countrypeople are left to social exclusion?

John E Willett

14 Eastgate Road, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire.

TALKING POINT

At a recent meeting to discuss CAP reform, a senior representative from a well known conservation organisation asked a telling question. Why are we bothering about agricultural production, when there is plenty of food in the world?

Sadly, that point of view has got a strong hold in the minds of so many, otherwise intelligent, people. Perhaps we should not be surprised. The shelves are groaning with high quality food.

Farmers, are losing the argument. No one in the industry doubts the severity of the present financial crisis.

But how long will it last? Too many farmers believe it is a temporary downturn. Before long the £ will weaken, the Russian and Asian markets will improve; it has all happened before and eventually the pendulum will swing back.

If only that that were true. The reality is different. Taxpayer-funded support, on which so many of our enterprises depend, will reduce or disappear to be transferred to environmental care. The freeing of world trade under the World Trade Organisation will have a dramatic effect despite French delaying tactics.

Also government thinking, across the political parties, has changed fundamentally. None of that means disaster but it does mean that we have to take a different attitude to policy. Instead of defending what we used to enjoy, we must try to turn the present and future situations to our advantage. We have some of the best farmers in the world, a favourable climate and a market on our doorstep.

If we are to succeed and prosper in an increasingly competitive, quality conscious market, we not only have to be good, we have to be better and indeed much better. That means making optimum use of science and technology to improve yields and quality and to reduce costs. We have done that to an outstanding degree during the past 50 years. When I started farming, 25cwt of wheat was an acceptable yield, today you dare not boast of less than 4t in the pub.

One of the more dangerous outcomes of the BSE fiasco is that, coupled with irresponsible reporting, it has turned the public anti-science. Nowhere is this symptom more apparent than in the debate on GM foods, particularly bearing in mind recent comments from Prince Charles. I can understand the publics view.

What I fail to understand is why so many farmers are turning against GMscience.

I have been involved in genetic modification of my sheep for 40 years or more. We have introduced genes from other breeds; we have selected and culled with rigorous discipline. In consequence, the Meatlinc breed is a vastly different and better animal than it ever was.

The average dairy cow which 50 years ago struggled to produce 2000 litres, now cheerfully does 8000 or 9000 litres. Every crop or stock has been genetically modified. The introduction of resistance to some herbicide in rape is but an extension of this.

The fact is that this technology, properly monitored, controlled and used, is an essential part of the progress that we have to make if we are to prosper in a competitive world while supplying what customers want. So think carefully before you swallow the highly charged and often emotional outpourings that you read every day. Find out the facts and judge accordingly.

All that I have discovered leads me to believe that the potential for progress, not just in yields but in quality and in environmental care, is real. Our competitors are already making full use of the technology.

If we farmers choose to deny well proven science, we condemn ourselves to becoming an agricultural backwater; a theme park. Is that what farmers want?

ALuddite attitude to

new food technology is

the road to nowhere,

says Henry Fell


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