We’re all farmers now

It must be terribly difficult being the Prince of Wales – but perhaps a little less difficult than being many of his potential future subjects.

HRH writes in Country Life magazine this week about why we must put a value on the countryside.  It is in these wide-ranging thought pieces that HRH seems least thoughtful and most muddled, but also most endearing and least convincing, it seems to me (off with my head!?).  Whereas I rather enjoy his rants about GM crops or modern architecture, without necessarily agreeing with any of them, it is when the Prince, our potential future monarch, deals with several subjects (topics, rather than we voters) at once that he tends to appear a little ‘u n j o i n e d u p’.

There is plenty in this article that I like (although quite a lot of it is an advert for the Prince’s own Countryside Fund.  He does highlight the fact that the Farmland Bird Index, ‘widely regarded as a good environmental indicator’, is at its lowest ever level, and is 55% lower than at 1970 even though some of its constituent species (eg the Wood Pigeon) have increased in that time. Farmland specialist species such as Skylark, Yellowhammer and Lapwing have all declined by 70% even though these species would ‘light up any country walk‘.  Those bits are super – I liked them.

I also liked the fact that HRH recognises the ecosystem services (the value of carbon storage, water cleansing and flood alleviation) carried out by habitats but doesn’t think that this argument is the be-all and end-all of why we should protect nature.

But then he gets all soppy about farmers.  Apparently if we had no farmers, we would have no beautiful landscapes. I don’t think so. We might have rather little food, but we would have some spectacularly beautiful landscapes. The idea that farming and farmers have created beautiful landscapes is partly true – it’s about as true as the fact that farming and farmers have destroyed beautiful landscapes too. Too often, land owners want to claim the credit for the good they have done, and blame the harm on others.  Where did the heather go that Prince Charles praises – mostly into sheep farmers’ sheep? Was it the townies that came out and ploughed up the meadows that we all miss – no, a farmer did that off his own bat?  And where did all those Skylarks and Yellowhammers go? And turn to the letters pages and a resident of Lanarkshire complains about the local farmers sticking wind turbines everywhere.   It’s a bit more complicated than if we had no farmers we would have no beautiful landscapes, isn’t it?

The average hill farmer apparently earns £8000 a year. That might be right but we should ask what the average capital value of their land is? And we should look carefully at whether their farmhouse is part of their business or whether they need to pay for it out of that £8000.  And their vehicles – a business expense? Such figures are quite misleading taken at face value. Many farmers are certainly income-poor, but some are capital-rich, and that puts them in a very different category from a student nurse or the job-seeker in Brixton.  When a farming family sells its land it is usually through choice – it may be a difficult choice but the outgoing farming family gains from land prices, kept high by public subsidy payments, that are higher than ever before.

And what is the average payment from the taxpayer to these farmers?  I reckon it’s more than £8000 a year. So where is the value in that to the taxpayer?

Prince Charles seems to think that farmers are wonderful and an endangered species.  Any loss of the number of farmers in the country is, he seems to think, a bad thing. Personally, I’m not too bothered about how many farmers there are, I’m more worried about what they do, than how numerous they are. And why should we care that the same amount of farming, producing greater yields of food, is achieved with a smaller number of bigger landowners? Most would call that an efficiency gain in food production.

I would agree with HRH in his ‘old-fashioned belief’ (that I think is actually quite modern too) that farming ought to be practised as ‘a partnership between mankind and Nature’ – although I think he chooses different words from the ones I would prefer.  The loss of farmers is not a loss of farming. And the sustainability of the farming we have is not that dependent on how many farmers there are – it depends more on what they do.  Large and small farmers can farm sustainably or unsustainably.

And anyway, we are all farmers now as we all invest heavily in subsidies and incentives to farming.  I support that system in principle (much of it) but it is poorly implemented in practice.

And HRH has swallowed the argument that we need to keep all land in agricultural production because the world population is growing. Let’s not get into that here but it is the laziest of thinking.

I suppose that where HRH is coming from is the same place as many of us: we want a pretty countryside, providing lots of food, happy farmers, full bellies, cheap food, Skylarks in every field singing tunefully, flowers and a long list of other things.These are no longer individual choices by individual land owners – they are societal choices by taxpayers and policy makers.

One of Prince Charles’s worries is ‘the extent to which the majority of the population has lost any real connection with the land’ and I agree with that – particularly because we are all paying for what happens in the countryside.  Our money flows to the countryside but our views do not impinge on it too much.  We are all farmers now and we ought to make our voice heard a little louder about what sort of countryside we want.

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14 Replies to “We’re all farmers now”

  1. 'The idea that farming and farmers have created beautiful landscapes is partly true – it’s about as true as the fact that farming and farmers have destroyed beautiful landscapes too'.

    Spot-on Mark, I agree. Michael Shrubb puts this well in his book, 'Birds, Scythes and Combines'. A must read for anybody interested in the history of the British countryside.

    As Shrubb states: 'Any long-term perspective shows how false the idea that farming preserves the countryside is. It is instead a catalyst for change. Farming's economic and methodological revolution during the hundred years or so after 1750 brought enormous changes in landscape and habitats. Such revolutions habitually reach too far'.

    Likes(7)Dislikes(5)
  2. Ernest - anyone who has not read Birds Scythes & Combines shouldn't be commenting on farming and birds - Mike's view of farming is piercing and hugely well informed - not least by the depth of history you rightly refer to. There is a simple, underlying problem which HRH is probing towards: technology and ethics have become completely detached in modern intensive farming. There is no 'should we do it ? Is it right ?' simply 'we can do it therefore not we should, but rather we must.'

    In practise, HRH is on the side of the good farmers who are trying to do it better - but, rather like in the shooting world, loyalty is an overrated virtue when that leads to defending the mass who are doing the opposite to what he himself believes in.

    And, yes, it is a very tough life being a hill farmer and for Exmoor at least £30,000 of subsidy translates into £10,000 of (declared) income and it won't last anyway because the average hill farmer is over 60 and surprise, surprise is not being replaced by young people keen to be cold, wet, incredibly hard working and pretty poor. We need a new paradigm - George Monbiot probes an option in feral - but will we get it before the sheep finish the upland birds off altogether ?

    Likes(15)Dislikes(5)
  3. "It must be terribly difficult being the Prince of Wales"

    The job interview must have been particularly stressful

    Likes(10)Dislikes(1)
  4. I don’t like the idea of the countryside having value, utility or any other economic term thrust upon it. Consider that we really only need to know the value of things that we wish to buy or sell. The fact that unique habitats and landscapes can be priced fills me with dread.

    I would far rather these areas to be considered as invaluable and treated and respected in accordance.

    Likes(7)Dislikes(4)
  5. "[W]hy should we care that the same amount of farming, producing greater yields of food, is achieved with a smaller number of bigger landowners? Most would call that an efficiency gain in food production."

    Economic 'efficiency' in food production as in every other 'industry' is of course defined by our current corporate-crony-capitalist system, and lauded as the highest good. But maybe we need to be questioning this.

    Large landowners and corporations may indeed be highly 'efficient', in their own terms, but is that really a desirable future; where fewer and fewer people own and control more and more of the Earth's resources?

    Many people in England really want to be able to farm ecologically to benefit wildlife and biodiversity and revive second-home ghost villages, commuter dormitories and barren monocultures back into communities once again, but are increasingly prevented from doing so by a non-level playing field which advantages big business and large landowners and shuts out us little people.

    Globally the situation is even more desperate, with wealthy state and corporate actors land-grabbing areas the size of a county at a time, throwing millions of poor farmers off the land and into unemployment in urban slums.

    The Farm Land Grab blog has more information.

    Eg http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24218

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  6. Mark,this is not intended as a criticism just as I see it a fact.
    It is really a waste of time and effort on your part and the RSPB to have blogs about not getting your moneys worth from your payments going to farmers as you want more farmland birds.
    Fact is probably two farmers read your blog,even a few more would still not be 0.001% of farmers and to think that farmers will search RSPB site to find out how to get more farmland birds is naive in the extreme,even when I searched their site I found it difficult to get to the important bit.
    In my opinion the only way to reach majority and then stand a chance of more farmland birds is to talk to the NFU about promoting this also the farming press.
    Obviously probably relations between RSPB and NFU not great but surely the RSPB talk to far worse people than NFU.
    I very much doubt if improving things for farmland birds even gets into farmers minds at the moment they will all be thinking about animals and crops and not searching internet for farmland bird improvement.
    Quite honestly there is a massive gap between having lots of information that would probably solve the problem and it getting to the right people and unless someone finds a way to get this information to Mr/Mrs average farmer all that research and cost is wasted.
    What seems crazy is all the talk about farmland birds in decline on places like RSPB site and your blog etc just get to conservationists and a handful of farmers so there is little likelihood of improvement.
    I will of course be extremely interested in you telling me where this comment could be wrong because I find it frustrating that the answers to farmland bird numbers improving are available but not getting to farmers in my opinion,if only a very small % carried out things on their farms on finding what needs doing it must make a significant difference.

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    1. Bird surveys on our livestock farm show the following:

      Barn Owl, Blackbird, Blackcap, Blue Tit, Buzzard, Carrion Crow, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Cross Bill, Curlew, Dunnock, Goldcrest, Goldfinch, Grasshopper Warbler, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit, Green Woodpecker, Grey Wagtail, House Martin, Kestrel, Lapwing, Lesser Redpoll, Linnet, Longtailed Tit, Meadow Pipit, Oystercatcher, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Redstart, Reed Bunting, Robin, Sand Martin, Siskin, Song Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Starling, Stonechat, Swallow, Swift, Tree Pipit, Willow Warbler, Wood Pigeon, Wren.

      Also in the area: Hen Harrier, Peregine and Raven.

      Where are we going wrong?

      Likes(9)Dislikes(1)
  7. The number of farmers may not be an important thing in itself and fewer farmers producing more food per hectare may well be an efficiency gain, but if this is achieved at the expense of further intensification, more hedgerow removal, drainage, fertiliser and pesticide inputs and so on then it may nevertheless be something to worry about. It would be naive (and patently incorrect) to think that all small farms are good for nature and big ones bad but it is, I think, true that the ones that have the financial ability to buy up their failing neighbours have generally become so through a single-minded application of intensive modern methods, without worrying too much about the odd blackbirds nest in a hedge or skylark in a field.

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  8. Land is power, so it matters very much in social, economic and in environmental terms who, and how many, are the owners. A concentrated pattern of landownership concentrates and entrenches power and that has always been a bigger problem in Britain than in the rest of Europe. Where else do you think the tweedy contempt for the law originates ?

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  9. Interesting report here covering the area containing semi natural grasslands, upland hay meadows and consequently now, a red listed species, the last remaining black grouse in England. Black grouse are protected by game shooting interests yet still struggling.

    Hen harrier preferred habitat is very similar to that of black grouse.

    There is no evidence of any illegal killing of hen harriers by grouse shooting interests in England.

    Maybe the solution to the predicament of black grouse and hen harriers both, then, is to be found in reports like this:

    http://www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/lookingafter/projectwork/Northern-Uplands-Chain-HNV-Farming-Report.pdf

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    1. Monro - there are loads of scientific papers, and statements from game shooting interests, that show that Hen harriers are killed by grouse shooting interests in grouse shooting interests of the UK.

      Everyone protects black grouse - of course shooters shot them until they became really rare.

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      1. I would be grateful if you would cite those scientific papers that are not based on rspb data.

        Your petition concerns only England and grouse shooting interests there and is supported by no evidence whatsoever from England.

        If everyone protects black grouse, and they share the same habitat as hen harriers, and they are still red listed, might it not logically seem likely that certain other factors, then, other than shooting/illegal killing are responsible for the decline of both species?

        Wind farms, for example:

        http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2012.02110.x/full

        Overgrazing, predation, afforestation, deer fences:

        http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/grantanddawson2005_tcm9-211927.pdf

        References regarding black grouse, from all over Europe, confirm these to be the major problems:

        http://www.daba.gov.lv/upload/File/DOC/SAP_Rubenis-03_EN.pdf

        Why is Britain concentrating on something else?

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  10. Monro,
    to start with try reading "A future for the Hen Harrier" its available on the web via the Natural England website. Whats your problem with RSPB data, unlike the shooting lobby they do not lie? Oh one fact for you based on English harrier data. It has been shown in many studies elsewhere ( where there is no persecution) that harrier disappearance in the breeding season is 1-2% and this has also been shown to be mainly due to predation, often by Golden Eagles. Yet here in good old England the disappearance rate is approx 30 times that on our grouse moors, where there are no eagles and few foxes.
    Or try some of these:- whilst I was watching a just fledged brood of harriers on the borders of two estates, one of the keepers on the estate where they had not nested arrived and said on seeing them " If they come on here they are effing dead." and off he went .
    or on asking a head keeper, on a moor where harriers had been regular nesters but with his arrival they had gone, what we might expect in the coming season " You'll get now't, no birds, no nests, you know what my instructions are as well as I do"
    or another keeper whilst talking about Peregrines " I'll put up with the peres but I'll have no bloody harriers"
    or an agent " my keepers are instructed to leave peregrines alone but to kill every harrier at every opportunity."
    or another keeper " the only time harriers were successful here was when they were on a remote part of the moor and the boss didn't see them so I didn't have to kill them"
    or on another moor whilst burning ( yes I used to help with that) owner arrives says to keeper " I've just seen a harrier you'd better get off and deal with it"
    Keeper " No "
    As soon as a new head keeper arrived this man was sacked.

    But of course there's no persecution, the moons made of cream cheese and the tooth fairy really exists!

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