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The milk of human kindness – or cruelty?

Friday 19 November 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, cross at being so rudely interrupted in his morning shower, is outraged at plans for a 10,000 head dairy farm in Lincolnshire and wonders if it is time to bring back the Milk Marketing Board

THERE are certain times of the day which are pretty sacred to me and one of those is the few minutes I spend in my morning shower – which is probably a good reason for not listening to the Today show on BBC Radio Four.

On Wednesday this week, my ears full of soap suds and my eyes fully closed under a hot jet, I nearly fell out of the shower when I thought I heard a story about plans to open a dairy farm supporting 10,000 milking cows in Lincolnshire.

Lucky to be outdoors!

By the time I had unplugged my ears and opened my eyes, the story had switched to a huge dairy factory in the American mid-west which makes a mere 10,000 head look like a stick and dog farm of 50 years ago – the type I remember with great affection from my youth.

But even more strangely, as someone who has spent the last 20 years campaigning against Whitehall and Brussels imposed red tape of British farmers, it made me think that is could be time to bring back a much-missed rural quango, the Milk Marketing Board.

Quite rightly, the local residents near the proposed mega dairy in Lincolnshire are up in arms and are to oppose it at the planning enquiry. And in doing so, they will be putting to the test this Coalition’s seemingly contradictory pledges to be a) be the greenest government of all time whilst also b) increasing British food production.

Only the day before, I had written a piece about changes to the Higher Level Stewardship grants which, amongst other things, promise to switch farm subsidies away from public access to farm land – an obsession with New Labour – to wildlife protection and a reduction in river pollution (See News, Nov 17).

I have written about the latter several times because of fears that one of my favourite trout rivers is being polluted by run-off from farms which once supported a maximum of 40 milking crows but now have well over a hundred fed on bought-in silage and other feed substitutes.

So if 100 cows can be a threat to this once pristine river, what would 10,000 do? And in this, we are not even going into the other, potentially darker, side of this proposal, the well-being - dare I say happiness? – of the animals which will never see an open field but spend their lives in huge sheds force-fed silage.

There is yet another contradiction here to puzzle the policy makers at the environment department Defra. A couple of weeks ago, they were boasting about British plans to do away with the most hideous aspects of poultry battery farming which are eventually to be followed up (with some reluctance no doubt) by the rest of the EU).

So we can lead a continent-wide crusade against cruelty to battery hens – and yet allow cattle to be reared in similarly un-natural conditions? That’s a nonsense and, with a bit of luck, the new politicians at Defra, who have some real understanding of agriculture, must know it. Whether they act upon it remains to be seen.

That suggests that we have some very unhappy cows here in Britain...

This leads to the economic side of dairy farming, a crucial factor in these difficult times. It has been said, time and time again, that happy animals produce more food more quickly. They put on weight faster if they are meat breed, and produce bigger yields if they are dairy cows.

That suggests that we have some very unhappy cows here in Britain, which has perhaps the best dairy-producing conditions in Europe, yet we are forced to import millions of litres of milk every year from France and even arid Italy. That’s another total nonsense.

To start sorting that one out, the Defra new boys and girls – including Secretary of State Caroline Spelman – should first start leaning on the massive supermarket chains and the big dairy companies, which have driven thousands of dairy farmers out of the industry by slashing prices paid to their supplier so low that it has been cheaper to pour milk down the drain than transport it.

New Labour promised to do that for a decade but always chickened out on taking on such a powerful lobby. Let’s hope Caroline and her chaps have more guts.

Finally, and it absolutely astonishes me that I am making this suggestion after years of battling bureaucrats, we should bring back an organisation like the Milk Marketing Board, which was scrapped by Maggie Thatcher in one her many wars against Whitehall.

The board promised farmers – even small farmers milking as few as a dozen cows – a guaranteed price for their production. It mean that milk was often only a small part of a farm’s production, which would also include some arable crops, a few sheep, and – praise be – free range poultry.

This meant that a majority of farms away from the cereal prairies of East Anglia covered a variety of habitats to suit a wide variety of wildlife – what the green trendies call “biodiversity” these days.

Such an organisation would, of course, cost money. But most of those costs could be wiped out by saving the millions in Euros (or other foreign exchange if the Euro goes bust, which seem quite likely) we pay to French and Italian milk producers, whose livestock are often reared in conditions which would be intolerable here.

The Big Boys of British agriculture, the prairie wheat farmers and the dairymen who want 10,000 head, will no doubt scoff at these ideas saying only big is beautiful. Not true! Most of our countryside is still by and large beautiful – more by accident than design, perhaps – and most of us would want to see it stocked with happy, healthy animals. Over to you, Mrs Spelman.

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