Still in denial

Guy Smith, just an ordinary farmer (not!), was doing his usual thing of trying to undermine the Farmland Bird Index on Farming Today yesterday.  He has been making the same points for years and he knows perfectly well what the answers to them are.  But this time he seemed to have quite a lot of assistance from the presenter, Anna Hill, in the way that she presented the piece.   Have a listen again and do a bit of media criticism with me.

Anna Hill:

Gauging bird populations in the countryside has always been a bone of contention between conservationists and farmers‘ Not really Anna.  The Farmland Bird Index is a government measure of farmland bird numbers which has been around for more than a decade.  But by saying this you give the impression that there is something to talk about here.  Where were Guy Smith and the NFU when the index came into being?

How accurate do you think the public’s data is (sic) that they gather because you can’t verify it, can you?‘ The data aren’t collected by the ‘public’ they are collected by a bunch of nerdy birdy people like me as part of David Cameron’s Big Society (although this type of data collection started under Harold Macmillan).  Anna did not just ask how accurate the data are – she partly answered her own question by saying ‘you can’t verify them can you?’.  This point was well answered by the guy from the Wildlife Trusts although, had he had another 10 minutes, he could have given several other answers too.  It’s always easier to raise a problem quickly than to answer it quickly – try answering the question ‘You’re horrible aren’t you?’ convincingly in four words? Or even forty?

How sure can we be that bird numbers are accurately recorded?‘ Anna, you’ve come back to this even though, to be fair to Guy Smith, he says that he doesn’t have any problems with the accuracy of the data!

I began by asking Guy whether he trusts the RSPB’s bird surveys‘ Anna, this is the fourth time that you have asked about the validity and acceptance of the counts and yet no-one you interviewed has suggested that they aren’t accurate.  It’s just you!  Interesting use of the word ‘trusts’ too – why put into the listener’s head the idea that they aren’t trustworthy?  You could have done this piece by saying – ‘I went out to find out how the data on bird numbers, which everyone accepts, are collected’, but you didn’t.  And, they aren’t the RSPB’s surveys, although the RSPB is a significant partner in the scheme, they are the BTO’s, Government Agerncies’ and the RSPB’s.

Generally speaking though, it does seem to some people that every week the RSPB releases a story saying that a particular breed of birds is down in numbers.  Do you think that this trickling of bad news misrepesents the true picture?’ Anna – who are these people? Why did you stress the word ‘trickling’?  What impression were you trying to make? Why did you use the word ‘misrepresents’ rather than ‘represents’?

Is it (ie good news) celebrated enough?  It  seems to be that people hear about bird numbers falling rather than going up‘ Anna – well you are the media person here so you fix that! But tell us what is the good news for farmland birds, overall?

‘Guy Smith, the RSPB is founded to protect birds, you can’t blame them for bringing out the news that  bird species in certain areas are down.’ Anna, you are hardly putting Guy on the spot here in the way you have repeatedly tried to do with the two conservationists you interviewed.  You suggest that it’s the RSPB’s job to highlight bad news rather than say ‘Guy, there’s no doubt that lots of farmland birds have declined, and that the government FBI has recently fallen to its lowest level ever, you can’t seriously say that this situation is good enough, can you?’.  And it isn’t ‘in certain areas’ the figures are UK or England figures and overall the index goes down so there are more places where these birds have declined than where they have increased (or the declines are much greater where they have occurred).

Guy Smith:

‘I’m just a normal farmer‘ Guy – you aren’t; you are a communications spokesman for the NFU, a past candidate for the NFU Vice-presidency, a regular writer for farming magazines, were apparently a member of CropGen making the case for GM crops, and have held many regional NFU positions.  Normal you aren’t!

that index tends to focus on the bad news and ignores the good‘ Guy – the overall index is down, so there is more bad than good news (as Mark Eaton said).  But it would be interesting if the NFU and the RSPB got together to celebrate the increase in wood pigeon numbers – one of the increasing species in the FBI.

the RSPB, yet again, hitting farmers over the head with this farmland bird index.’ and ‘Telling the wider public that there are no birds on farms’  and ‘that it’s a picture of desolation ‘.  Guy – do you not think that you may have exaggerated what the RSPB says and said? Point us to where the RSPB has done this?  It’s a common ploy to exaggerate the others’ arguments to make them look foolish or just extreme. The fact that farmland birds have declined is not in question.  No-one has hit a farmer with anything on this subject.

our fathers were asked to produce and their focus was mostly on production and now that’s shifted.’ Guy – the focus has not shifted much from production although your NFU President, Peter Kendall, wants it to shift even further back towards production and away from environmental protection.    Did he get the line that there is no biodiversity crisis in the countryside from you, Guy, as a communications spokesman?  You can’t seriously blame the ongoing decline in the FBI (remember it reached its lowest ever point, so far, in 2010 (the last year for which we have records)) on your father and his generation? Are you saying ‘it’s not me, it’s them’? Come back and say that when the FBI has gone up for a few years.

It is in the interests of those in the farming industry who wish to see environmental concerns swept away to diminish the declines in farmland wildlife in order to give the impression that everything is fine out there.  It isn’t fine.  As you may recall, I find the NFU a thoroughly anti-environmental organisation and it’s a shame that more of those many farmers who care about wildlife don’t voice their concerns more publicly and strongly.

If Guy Smith, communications spokesman for the NFU, represents most farmers then the farming industry has put itself in a very strange position.  This radio piece was not recorded in response to an over-the -top RSPB attack on farmers and indeed the idea that conservationists attack farmers, or hit them over the head with anything, doesn’t stand up.

No doubt the BBC and Farming Today will want to balance things up in future.  Here are some suggested questions for the candidates for the NFU Presidency and other offices so that they can demonstrate their green credentials; do you accept the FBI gives a good representation of the fate of birds dependent on farmland? do you think that farming in England/UK will have failed if some of those dramatic losses of farmland birds aren’t reversed in the next few years? why aren’t more farmers doing what the RSPB has done at Hope Farm and turning the FBI around without affecting overall profitability?  Have you done all you can to increase wildlife on your farm? is it working? what is your advice to NFU members on farming in an environmentally friendly way?

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15 Replies to “Still in denial”

  1. Its just sloppy Mark - no doubt they will give the same airtime to you! With all the cuts at the BBC I see this getting worse - short cuts and lazy journalism.

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  2. Can only say Mark that wildlife friendly farmers are not very good journalists and have not much of a platform to put over their views and you know probably better than anyone that it is easier to publish bad news about this subject than good news.
    One of previous comments even unhappy about farmers setting hedge,well surely that will benefit birds in future don't you think.
    I know it is another subject but perhaps needs exploring,should RSPB and BTO have a big campaign to get money to buy Grouse Moor when one comes up for sale as this is the only way I can see mainland Hen Harrier being saved.£5 every member should do it and as they come up add to them.Once bought should be self financing with tenant and sheep to keep the ticks under control.

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  3. Just listened to it on line and yes poor old Anna hasn't got a clue really. No one challenged,other than the RSPB chap briefly, the premise that an increase in Collard Doves, Blackbirds and Woodpeckers proves that farmland birds are on the rise! No mention of Skylarks, Yellowhammers, Linnets, in fact any iconic farmland bird. I guess she doesn't know her birds or the researchers let her down. Hopefully farmers that know their real farmland birds (in the spirit of the definition)had a chuckle at Guys assertions. I know the farmers I do ( accurate) surveys for will have!

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  4. Mark – I discovered your blog late last year, and it’s become essential reading. Thanks!

    I think it’s interesting that you choose to use the word ‘denial’ in the title of this piece, because it has in two ways some similarity with climate change denial.

    Firstly, there’s what you can call the ‘false equivalence’ approach of the media. For many humanities-trained graduates in journalism, science is just one big controversy, in which one person’s viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s. It’s perfectly reasonable to pit a scientist who has spent years researching a subject against a pundit who has never undertaken any original research or published a paper in their lives. So the media will interview Michael Mann, and then follow it with Peter Hitchens.

    The correct approach here would have been to try to find an ornithologist who thinks farmland birds are fine. Either the BBC couldn’t find one, or couldn’t be bothered. So much easier to interview someone who is clearly an expert on farming, but knows little about tree sparrows.

    Secondly, there’s the attitude of people when presented with information that contradicts their world view. Instead of, as Huxley put it, sitting down before truth as a little child, and preparing to give up all preconceptions, they try to rubbish the data, attack the honesty of the researchers, or cherry-pick the data to fit their own agenda.

    I honestly don’t know what the solution to this is, except to just plug away and hope that the message will get home eventually, when the data are just too overwhelming to ignore. But if you think ‘Farming Today’ is bad, try listening to the BBC 1 business report, on at about the same time. It’s the morning hymn to capitalism!

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  5. Or to be quite blunt about it, why are enormous amounts of money being awarded to farmers through schemes overseen by the RSPB for very little or no gain in farmland birds? It's high time the RSPB actually started vocally telling it how it is rather than acting as a borderline establishment organisation that knows just how far to push things with officaldom. When past leaders of the RSPB are in the House of Lords, you just know something's not right.

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    1. Tapaculo, I just thought I would get in before Mark does. There are no schemes 'overseen' by the RSPB. The responsibility for these lies elsewhere. I do think you will find the RSPB is telling it how it is, that is why discussions like this take place. Finally Members of the Lords are chosen from a wide range of areas and even though I would prefer them elected they do represent backgrounds from business, public service and NGOs amongst many others. I would be surprised if the leader of the largest environmental charity in Europe wasn't considered for such a position (but there haven't been many that have got there).

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  6. I reckon Andrew has nailed this one. The BBC is marginalising itself by failing to report accurately. I used to think they were trying to be fair but the more I get my news from bloggers (like Mark) who have a better understanding than journos of whats actually going on the more I suspect the BBC is being either lazy or negligent. I don't think they have a political axe to grind, often they want to create the spectacle of a ding dong and when the participants refuse to play the game it comes across as pathetic. News has become entertainment.

    Having reread what I've just written, the alternative explanation is that its those of us who really care about whats going on, be it on the environment or the economy, who are the marginalised ones. The BBC is more in tune with our culture's head in the sand, money and celebrity obsessed approach to the realities of life.

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  7. Hi Mark,what really interests me is it should really be feasible but is it,Sure you would know much more about the price as found it difficult to find,only found vague figure of £5 to £10 million but surely Heritage and Lottery and others would contribute.We would at least be doing something and as much as I support other things for Hen Harriers I feel sure the simple fact of these places are so remote the same concerns will be voiced in another 100 years.Even so if it is considerably more for us all to find most people could definitely find it if the will was there.

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  8. The answer is not for the NGOs to buy all the grouse moor they can. The answer is to have stronger laws and critically enforcement. There is no excuse for killing hen harriers or any other raptors. The owls, buzzards and sparrow hawks bring me joy every day.

    In relation to farmland birds - I think the entry level scheme is a joke. The higher level schemes need more investment and again more enforcement. So many of the precriptions are never implemented and Natural England seems to do nothing.

    I am blessed with thousands of birds over the farm from barn owls to wrens and everything in between. I would never dream of killing any raptor or bird (except for the odd pheasant for the pot) and all decent farmers and landowners are the same.

    I hate to say it - not all are decent.

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  9. Sorry Cowboy but my point is the law is absolutely useless to catch Grouse Moor persecuters,the chance of catching someone deliberately persecuting is about a million to one.It will always be done when no chance of anyone in the area which is unlikely even at any time because of the remote area.Even if seen believe they would say sorry bird I didn't see your nest that I just trod on.Things are not working plain to see by numbers of H H in England.

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  10. Well I am only a listener and I believe it is all down to editing. BBC does appear to have an agenda on some subjects.

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