Unpublished, but talked about, grouse studies

Last year I wrote about the grouse shooting industry’s habit of speaking in public about what are allegedly the results of studies that suit their case but where the findings are not in the public domain. In 2016 we had Ian Botham and Matt Ridley referring to a report which has still not been published to my knowledge (see here). Then last year Botham again was in the media talking about a secret study funded by secret sponsors but carried out by researchers from Newcastle and Durham Universities (see here and here).

I wondered how the Durham and Newcastle researchers were getting on with publishing the study that Ian Botham told us all about back in 2017 so I emailed Prof Mark Whittingham as follows ‘Hi! How are you getting on with your robust analysis please? Any news?  Any findings available yet?‘.

Prof Whittingham replied ‘thanks for your interest in our work. The work has been submitted to an international journal and is undergoing peer-review. We can send a copy of the article to you in due course‘.

So, no sign that the paper is accepted, and no sign of imminent publication – we must all thank Ian Botham for jumping the gun by such a wide margin.

I got back to Prof Whittingham a week ago with this:

Thank you.
It seems as though you are already commenting on the results pre-acceptance and pre-publication http://www.darlingtonandstocktontimes.co.uk/news/16415501.Gamekeepers_vital_in_protecting_rare_birds__report_finds/
That’s not exactly good practice, is it? Or were you misquoted?

but I haven’t had a response yet.


A Bluffer’s Guide to Agriculture Policy (1)

I wonder what the new Agriculture Bill will deliver for us (and I’ll come back to who ‘us’ is later).

When (if) we leave the EU then we will also leave the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) which has been a much-criticised part of our lives for more than four decades.  If we are to say ‘Goodbye CAP!’ then we need something with which to replace it.

This blog will briefly deal with how we got to where we are today (it would be a very long story).

How did we get here? These days we tend to think of food as something that is cheap and in good supply – it wasn’t always so (even for the rich west). Food rationing ended in the UK in 1954 after the stringencies of WWII. My parents grew up with food rationing as part of their lives and similar thoughts were in the minds of those who founded the European Economic Community. Early forms of European agriculture policy simply underwrote food production so that producers (farmers) could rely on guaranteed prices for their production. This certainly worked, and in time one could jump off a butter mountain and into a wine lake.  Wasteful overproduction was then the problem with food having to be dumped on world markets or stored in intervention stores at the taxpayers’ expense.  There were also ecological consequences of these policies – overgrazing in the uplands and loss of marginal habitat in the lowlands weren’t caused by the CAP but their impacts were exacerbated by the fact that all production would find an artificial market.

Although primarily a food production policy a further strong thread running through policy was the desire of some EU countries to maintain rural communities and rural ways of life. So, paying farmers a form of income support to prevent rural depopulation was part of the policy.

Reform was necesssary, and the big change in the CAP was the introduction of a 2-tier system of spending our money so that a large part of the money went to farmers as income support (sometimes known as Pillar 1 payments), just for being farmers, because we all like farmers! And the second area of spend (Pillar 2) went into a variety of support mechanisms including support for environmentally friendly farming systems.

The logic behind this was simple, if you pay farmers to produce food then they will produce food and they may do that in ways which you don’t really like. They may use more powerful chemicals more often (they know they will get paid for their produce even if it is in excess), they may put out more sheep onto a hillside than is good for the hillside or good for the sheep because they get paid per sheep, they may calculate that bringing marginal land into cultivation is worth it because they know that the price of wheat is guaranteed even if everyone produce 5% more than they did. And no-one pays for wildlife, landscape, water quality or flood alleviation so food production wins out over those public goods (the first mention here of public goods – we’ll come back to them in more detail later).

So, the shift to payments under Pillars 1 and 2 was a way of putting some sort of value on wildlife etc and (eventually) cutting the link between how much a farmer produced and their payment. An economist might say that this was correcting market distortions and beginning to internalise the externalities.

So where we are now is that almost all farmers (there are a very few exceptions) receive payments which are basically no-strings handouts just for being a farmer from Pillar 1 (if you have bought a farm in recent years you would be getting them) and many farmers have decided voluntarily to apply for grants to make their farming more environmentally friendly.

The systems are different in detail but similar in principle in the four UK countries, and they are recognisably similar to the experiences of other farmers from western Ireland to the Black Sea and from Andalucia to Arctic Finland.  That’s why it’s called the Common AP.

Most of the money (roughly two thirds) goes into income support and the rest goes into the good stuff.  The process of change has been slow – definitely gradual reform rather than dramatic change. Brexit provides the opportunity, but nowhere near any certainty, to produce a better system here at home and that’s why the Agriculture Bill was launched last week.

That’s my starter on a Bluffer’s Guide to Agriculture Policy (it misses out loads of stuff – but that’s a good thing). Next, probably Wednesday (though life is uncertain) I will discuss in more detail what is wrong with the current system and, not surprisingly, the answer to that question depends quite a lot on who you are – who ‘us’ is.


Paul Leyland – Black Sexton Beetle

Paul writes: I see lots of black beetles and many of them are quite difficult to identify. This is one of the easier ones. It is quite large, 18 – 26mm long, with a chunky looking body and distinctive orange tipped antennae. It belongs to the family Silphidae, commonly known as burying beetles. They emerge in spring and can be seen right through until October. It is rare to see them in the day but they are attracted to light, so can turn up in the evening in well-lit areas of patios or gardens. I often run a moth trap in my garden in and regularly find them inside the trap. This one appeared in early May this year and I’ve had a string of visitors since. They can be found in most areas of Britain.

Black Sexton Beetles (Nicrophorus humator) are carrion feeders. They have an incredible sense of smell and are strong fliers. This allows them to locate suitable carrion over long distances. Once they find a body, usually a mouse or small bird, the male and female work together in burying it. They do this by excavating under the body so that it sinks into the ground and is eventually buried. The female will then lay her eggs next to the corpse, which will provide food for the larvae once they hatch.


Sunday book review: A Richness of Martens by Polly Pullar

I really hadn’t appreciated that the collective name for a bunch of martens was a ‘richness’ until reading this book. And there are many individually-known Pine Martens that feature in this book, all living on the westernmost peninsula of Britain, on Ardnamurchan.

The book is an account of the behaviour of Craig, Clive, Chris, Chloe, Les and Freda and many more – two of those named are people who study Pine Martens visiting their garden, and now their house, and the rest are some of their Pine Marten visitors.

This is an engaging book which describes Pine Martens, the people who study Pine Martens, and the landscape, wildlfie and human social life of a remote part of Scotland.  the author grew up in this area and that makes it seem a much more personal account. This book isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I found it intriguing and well worth the read.  It’s well written, full of interesting facts and has some rather good photographs too.

A Richness of Martens by Polly Pullar is published by Birlinn.

Remarkable Birds by Mark Avery is published by Thames and Hudson – for reviews see here.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.



Icelandic wildlife

I wasn’t expecting to see lots of dung flies in Iceland – but I did.  On a cool day, and a short walk, I saw more Yellow Dung Flies in Iceland than I have all year in Northants.

On the other hand, I was vaguely expecting to see a Puffin or two if I went to the right places – and I did.

This one was pretty cooperative (and actually there were thousands within view at this time on the Westman Islands) but you can, in summer, get a trip out of Reykjavik to see these birds (and you don’t even have to learn the Icelandic for Puffin).

And from the same part of the harbour in central Reykjavik you can get a whale-watching trip, like I did with Elding

… and stand a good chance of seeing a Minke Whale or two – in fact I think we saw at least five different individuals.