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A new dawn for environmentally friendly farming?

Friday 04 March 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard welcomes the new environmental stewardship scheme announced yesterday to reward farmers for their conservation work. It will be a great step forward, he says - if words are replaced by action

DEFRA officials yesterday (March 3) announced what they claimed to be the greatest step change in British agriculture for a generation (see News) and for once, their spin doctors were guilty of understatement.

If it works - and I sincerely hope it does - it will be the biggest change for 50 years, which is at least two generations in my estimation, and with a bit of luck will take our countryside back even further than that: to the time pre-1930s before Government stupidity allowed farming to go into near-terminal slump.

It wasn't until World War 11, when German U-boats came within an ace of starving this island to death, that politicians realised that agriculture was important and, as politicians invariably do, they swung the pendulum too far the other way. In doing so, they came close to destroying the countryside of Constable, Turner and Wordsworth.

Saved – we hope!
Saved – we hope!

By insisting on ever increasing food production, they made some farmers rich by encouraging them to clear more and more land, pump more and more fertilisers, insecticides and growth-promoting hormones into the environment. And, sadly, it took another 20 years when the results of this began to show.

Until 15 years or so, the notorious MAFF was giving grants to farmers for grubbing up hedges - and more grants for replanting them. This idiocy cost us thousands of miles of hedgerows, some of them hundreds of years old, and devastated dozens of species of birds, mammals and insects.

We came close to losing some of the wonders of nature that inspired painters and poets and millions of ordinary folk: the song of the skylark in high summer, the loss of picture postcard heather moors given over to sheep grazing, the deaths of millions of trout and other clean-river fish in rivers poisoned by farm effluent and nitrate fertilisers.

Now I have been moaning about this in print since 1960, along with many others, and although we no doubt upset a lot of people, the politicians paid no heed. Until yesterday, that is, and so far - sorry about the cynicism - so far we only have the words. I'll wait and see for the action.

Organisations like the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), not normally a great friend of this Government, went out of its way to give fulsome praise for the proposed stewardship scheme.

"It widens the number of farmers and landowners who can be rewarded for good practice and makes it financially viable to introduce further environmental management activities alongside the production of livestock, food and industrial crops," said the CLA's Yorkshire director, Dorothy Fairburn.

"Yorkshire has one of the most diverse mixtures of wonderful landscapes, important habitats, historical features, woodland and forest, along with some of England's most productive farmland. Land management also continues to be the vital contributor to the maintenance of environmentally-significant and attractive areas such as the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors"

But she pointed out there was one potential fly in the ointment: our civil servants must persuade EU civil servants in Brussels to come up with the funding required to finance from 2006 onwards.

Now there's a thought that sends shivers down my spine. Will they let us take money from French peasants to save our skylarks or our heather moors or our brown trout? If they don't, I shall be voting for UKIP next time round.

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