Birdwatch column

My column in the November Birdwatch magazine is on the subject of hen harriers and their persecution by grouse moor managers.

Rather than tell you what it says I’d like to tell you that Birdwatch is asking your opinion on the subject.  Is it time for a change of tack by the wildlife conservation organisations – primarily the RSPB?

What would you do? Give up on harrier persecution as an unwinnable battle? Or maybe raise the stakes? You tell us at Birdwatch and we’ll summarise the views and present them to the RSPB, the Moorland Association and others.

So, rush down to your local WHSmith and buy Birdwatch – not just for my column of course There are cracking articles on Yellowstone which brought back some memories and identification of Caspian gull (which I will find handy at my local gravel pits), or subscribe online, and tell us what you think. Do you remember ever being asked before?



I wonder how the Campaign for the Farmed Environment is going? This is the Big Society alternative to regulating  farming to replace the environmental benefits of set-aside.  It’s difficult to tell how it is going from the Campaign website.

Minister Jim Paice will have to decide how it is all going before Christmas in order to decide whether or not to continue to put about half a million taxpayer pounds a year into funding the campaign.  You see, it is a voluntary approach for farmers but there wasn’t a whip round we taxpayers to see whether we volunteered to contribute in this way.

Defra is so keen on talking about payment by results that I assume they will be chasing the NFU and CLA for a refund if the CFE does not meet all its targets – so let’s hope that it does!



I’ve been thinking about the proposed CAP reform and chatting to a few people about it too.

The attempt to move towards more equal payments across the EU cannot be other than fair – probably.  This is the agricultural equivalent of the idea of contraction and convergence.  If it were decided to do the same thing within the UK as is intended across the EU, Scottish farmers would be holding out their hands for some money from English and Northern Irish farmers – that’ll be fun in a partly devolved UK.

The proposed capping of Pillar 1 payments to 300,000 euros seems to me to be a good idea and perfectly fair.  If there were a ‘Single Supermarket Payment’ supporting the sellers of food rather than the producers of food’s raw materials then would you really want Tesco to get huge payments from the taxpayer compared with your corner grocer?  Might you not say ‘Hang on! You’re a massive business and you don’t need a handout from your customers’ taxes.’.  So might it be with land owners.

The unintended collateral damage of capping is that landowning conservation organisations will be capped too.  Personally I think that is fair enough too.  Charities can’t expect to benefit from public policies which are basically wrong-headed.  The RSPB, for one, has long argued for reductions in Pillar 1 payments so I’m sure they will be happy that they are being reduced (maybe a bit more quickly for themselves than for some other farmers though).  I hope that the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts do not argue against capping just because capping does not suit their own interests.  I guess the federal nature of the Wildlife Trusts means that it is not much of an issue for them anyway.

Having compulsory Environmental Focus Areas is a good idea.  If they make up 7% of the farmed area (I bet the NFU will be lobbying like mad to get this figure lowered) then their impact on agricultural production will be very small.  Many farms will qualify already – I wonder how much of the RSPB’s Hope Farm would already qualify and how much of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Loddington project would already qualify?  Remember that hedges and small (lots of scope for argument over that!) woods all qualify to make up part of the 7% total. And given the possibility to include the least productive parts of any farm in the EFAs any impact on the economics or productivity of the farmed landscape will be negligible – surely? Whereas the biodiversity benefit could be considerable.

The criterion for who counts as an active farmer might be a bit tricky for some NGOs too – the direct payments have to be at least 5% of your non-agricultural income for you to quality.  So if, say, Vodaphone own some fields they can’t claim on them?  Not even if they own hundreds of fields because Vodaphone is a very big business?  Interesting.

If 30% of the Pillar 1 payments are for ‘green stuff‘ can you get the other two thirds if you don’t want to do the ‘green stuff’?  That’s not clear to me.

But it is interesting that being an organic farm will ‘count’ as enough ‘green stuff’ to get the Pillar 1 payments.  I wonder what happens on big, partly organic farms?

There’s plenty of scope for change and plenty of scope for consfusion at the moment.  I am a bit confused so anyone who would like to make it all clear is very welcome to leave a comment here.

Here is a well-informed commentary from IEEP.


Harriers in The Field

The November issue of The Field, that’s the one with a man in tweed with a gun and a couple of dogs (doesn’t necessarily narrow it down that much?) has some excellent articles in it.  You can get some tips on brushing up your ability to bring down high pheasants and then how to cook them, and if your blood pressure hasn’t been raised by the lead shot or the article on releasing rehabililitated foxes in the countryside then have a look at my article on pages 80-83.

Across pages 80 and 81 is a very large image of a very beautiful hen harrier and inside the article I tell of the conversation I had with Colin McClean on the Glen Tanar Estate back in late August.  That estate seems to be doing a lot of good things.

Maybe £4.20 for a copy of The Field is beyond your pocket but for that price you also get, on average, an image of one and a half guns per page,  Zara Phillips advertising… (you’ll have to buy it to see), lots of wellies and dogs and some adverts from Bidwells for the type of upland forestry (if you have a spare £4.5m+) that will have helped reduce ground-nesting bird numbers in the Scottish Borders.

I think my article is the only one to mention the fish and chip shop in Jedburgh – maybe I can start a trend…?  Or maybe not.


A grain of truth

The dry spring weather in England (while I was driving through the rain in the USA) prompted fears about the grain harvest which, it is good to record here, have proved to be largely unfounded.  As in any year there have been winners and losers across the country but the UK wheat yield is estimated to be just 4% below the 5-year average. And oilseed yields have been very good.

And the price that you get for your grain today is over two and a half times what you would have got in January 2000 – the International Grains Council’s daily grains and oilseed index stands at 274 (January 2000 was a baseline of 100).

And here is a link to an interesting blog about grain markets.

Predicting grain yields and prices seem to be at least as challenging as predicting bird numbers – although the overall trends for yields and prices is up and the overall trend for farmland birds is down.