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Tough times for Cock Robin – but TLC for Daisy

Friday 30 January 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reflects on a week of good news, bad news, from the countryside and keeps his finger crossed for a long, dry summer

RURAL affairs have taken a backseat since before Christmas because newspapers, TV and radio have been transfixed with the collapse of the world’s banking system. But this week, the sun came out (in short spells, admittedly) and suddenly there was a burst of activity over countryside issues.

Some of this was good, some of it bad, and one item at least funny enough to put a smile on an old cynic’s lips: the fact that dairy cows produce more milk (some 50 gallons a year or so) if they are given a name rather than a number by their owners (See News, Wednesday).

Keep busy, says Co-op
Keep busy, says Co-op

This charming fact was revealed by scientists at Newcastle University (see News, Wednesday) and I don’t know why I should be surprised: we all know that dogs, in particular, respond to tender loving care (TLC) from their humans – cats too in their snooty, independent way – so why not cows?

But wander as I do through herds of dairy cows on a regular basis and you will see them stamped and tagged with all sorts of complex numbers, no doubt to suit the EU’s bureaucratic registration procedures.

The idea of calling a cow Daisy takes you back to the days of yore when the simplest country cottager was allowed to keep a single milker on the local common as an important contributor to the family diet. That happy beast was very much part of the family – but, sadly those simple country ways are long gone.

On Thursday, the British Trust for Ornithology revealed a shocking decline in our song bird population, with robins particularly badly hit, by last year’s wet and windy winter. If we have a similar wet summer this year, says the BTO, our robin population could be slashed in half (see Table).

Now this raises interesting questions for me personally, because I have been nurturing robins on my allotment for years as they help me keep in check such pests as leather jackets and wire worms which I uncover when digging over.

I feed the robins and other birds all winter but, until now, it has been standard procedure to stop in spring when their nestlings arrive because the chicks are better served with a “natural” diet of grubs, caterpillars and worms. So if we have another wet spring, I shall have to continue with shop-bought feeds like seeds and mealy worms.

In this, I am at least helping to re-balance some of the desperate damage man has done in his ignorance to wildlife these past 50 years or so – and I was delighted to be joined in this campaign by a crucially important announcement this week from what many people might consider to be an unlikely source: the Co-op.

I hope any gardener, nurseryman or farmer who reads this will take note: without bees to propagate our crops, thousands would fail. If only the big supermarkets would follow this historically important move!

Very few people realise that the co-operative movement began in the North of England – in Rochdale, to be precise – and spread to become a world-wide movement with huge influence in countries like Germany for instance.

But even fewer know that the Co-op is one of the biggest farm owners in the country, with some 65,000 acres under cultivation. It has been for some years one of the “greenest” farmers in Europe, pioneering new ploughing methods and reducing herbicide and pesticide use to help threatened farmland birds.

This week, I joined the Co-op as a supporter of its ethical business methods and, quite by co-incidence, was thrilled by an announcement the following days that it was to ban produce from all its food stores which have been sprayed with chemicals dangerous to honey bees.

As this column has reported before, there is world-wide concern about the disappearance of whole colonies of bees which simply desert their hives and vanish into thin air. This is a major problem here in the Yorkshire Dales and on the North York Moors, because heather honey collected here is an important income for local bee-keepers, fetching premium prices.

I have not used bee-dangerous sprays in my allotment for decades and it is rewarding to see the Co-op take such a major stance. I hope any gardener, nurseryman or farmer who reads this will take note: without bees to propagate our crops, thousands would fail. If only the big supermarkets would follow this historically important move!

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