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Farmers and the countryside: can grim get worse?

Friday 29 September 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard mourns the threat to the British farmer and fears that our precious countryside is at long-term risk as a result of bad weather, disease and public indifference

THE SALMON were running in my favourite pool after a few days of heavy rain, usually one of the joys of my country life. But I approached the river with heavy heart, wading knee-deep through nettles and thistles, weeds that symbolised something rotten at the very heart of British farming.

Until a few years ago, this was a prime, valley-bottom meadow, sat on limestone and fecund producer of lush sweet grass. At this time of the year, when the grass has been grazed short, I used to pick mushrooms by the score - I once filled my salmon net with 17 lbs of the things, and that is one hell of a lot of fungi.

Country scene under threat
Country scene under threat

I'll get no mushrooms here this autumn because the grass is so high that if mushrooms grow - which is unlikely as they like a cropped sward - I won't be able to see them. That prime meadow has not been grazed this summer, you see, because the farm has been sold and the buildings are being converted into luxury homes for outsiders.

There are stretches of land like this throughout Britain this weekend, as farmers pack their bags and move to a more profitable, less stressful, and better understood life in the towns and cities. Thousands of them are tired, worn down by Government indifference and red-tape, ludicrous Brussels bureaucracy, and a Mother Nature who seems to have turned a malicious back on the sons of her soil.

One of the real tragedies here is that so few people understand just how deep is the stress of a countryman having to give up land his family has worked for generations, sometimes even centuries. For him or her, it is a personal disgrace, a failure which non-farm people tend to put down to laziness or even stupidity.

And who in the suburbs actually understands the effort that goes into growing the food which ends up in plastic on a Tesco shelf? Or worse, when they make their cafe latte, do they realise that - according to a Government investigation - their milk has been illegally inflated in price by the supermarket chains whilst, at the same time, they were cutting the price they paid to farmers so low that hundreds were forced into bankruptcy?

When the BBC reported this indignantly last weekend, they complained that this alleged price-fixing has cost the general public an extra £270 million over two years for their milk, butter and cheese. That's a lot of money but it works out at about a fiver a head. Little mention was made of the fact that farmers had been cheated out of millions, hundreds of them being forced off the land forever.

The urban public, you see, still clings to the image of the farmer as a non-stop moaner always struggling to extract more subsidy from their hard-earned taxes, an image which may have been true in the 1950s but which has been in steep decline for half a century.

And, in the last two years, the Government hasn't even been capable of paying those subsidies, thanks to crass incompetence at the Rural Payments Agency. Most salaried workers get paid on the dot on the first of the month, every month. How would they cope waiting on a pay cheque which is not one but two and even three years late?

Add to this global warming, flooding, foot and mouth, BSE and now blue tongue disease and you have a culmination of disasters that could break the bravest men and women.. And, sadly, is doing so in ever greater numbers.

When they've gone, who will look after the British countryside, which provides millions of townsfolk with an escape from the noise, the fumes, and the greyness of urban life, not to mention the threat of growing crime. We are sowing the seeds of a rural disaster here, as the roots of the nettles and the thistles in my favourite meadow get deeper by the day.

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