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Can the Turnip Taliban save the countryside?

Friday 20 November 2009

This has been a week when some politicians – Tory ones at that – have deeply offended rural voters, says our countryside commentator John Sheard. But next week, a scheme is launched which raises a glimmer of hope for peace in the long-running war between farmers, bureaucrats and environmentalists

NORMALLY, I am far too cynical to be offended by politicians. Having met many of them over the years, including five prime ministers, I know that what they say in public, and what they believe in private, are often totally opposed. To lie to the voters, however, is the norm.

But this week, as a rural voter, I was deeply offended by some shenanigans in East Anglia when a London-based Tory woman was selected for a safe seat even though she had not mentioned a previous adultery to the local Conservative selection committee who, having selected her, wanted to reverse that decision over her lack of frankness.

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She was reinstated as candidate after much pressure from Tory head office where, according to the media, her opponents were known as “the Turnip Taliban” – and this as a rural voter I found deeply offensive.

Such metropolitan superciliousness, in which we country folk are scorned as muddied, ignorant oafs, has been growing amongst our largely urban-based MPs for far too long and has left a deep divide between town and country. And that has put both our countryside, and the very food we put on our tables, at risk.

But now for the good news. Those “Turnip Taliban” will this coming week launch what is perhaps the most important countryside campaign since Turnip Townshend (the 2nd Viscount Townshend) revolutionised English agriculture in the 17th Century.

The conundrum: can we produce more food in an era of world food shortages without destroying our countryside, the wildlife that lives there, and the small rural communities which depend on farming and, in areas like the Yorkshire Dales, tourism for their very existence?

Next week, in the Turnip Taliban countryside of East Anglia, farmers, conservationists and civil servants will meet for the first two “brain-storming” sessions organised by the newly created Campaign for the Farmed Environment CFE).

The aim, probably for the first time in the past century or so, is to hammer out an agreed path for future agriculture which can please farmers, politicians, bureaucrats, environmentalists and – oh yes – the English general public, who have shown in poll after poll, that our countryside is very important to them even if they live in some of our grim inner cities.

this coming week launch what is perhaps the most important countryside campaign...

Now the cynicism that I confessed to earlier would, under normal circumstances, have made me to be totally underwhelmed by yet another grand gesture from this particular Government. For although English farming has been either ignored or over-indulged for the best part of a century now (the rot began to set in after World War 1) these past twelve years have been the worst.

Although the often accident prone environment ministry Defra is the lead Government body in this new campaign, there are others which have shown knowledge and experience of hands-on dealings with rural problems, like the Environment Agency and, to a lesser extent, Natural England.

But also in there are the National Farmers’ Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and many other voluntary bodies who actually know what they are talking about: Turnip Taliban with experience, concern and brains often lacking in Whitehall.

And they represent often opposed rural demands. The game conservation, for instance, has regularly clashed with the RSPB over the need for the widespread culling of predators like crows and magpies which are responsible for large-scale raids on the nests of ground nesting birds like grouse, pheasant and partridge – the game shooting industry’s main quarry – but also for a huge reduction in our song bird population.

The fact that these two charities – both of which I support for differing reasons -have chosen to come together to help farmers create a better environment for birds and to instil some real, hard-nosed country truths into the heads of the Whitehall pen-pushers gives me cause for real hope. Let’s hope the politicians drop their sneers and listen: the Turnip Taliban know what they’re talking about.

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