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.
‘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).
‘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?