Birds and Set-Aside

We have a Little Owl that makes an appearance from time to time around our buildings. Recently ‘he’ appeared on the roof ridge of the barn opposite our house accompanied by another, slightly smaller Little ( lady ? ) Owl. Side by side, in the fading dusk light, they looked like a couple of Russian Dolls. Maybe some smaller ‘dolls’ will appear alongside them before too long.

This got me thinking about a hot topic currently being debated within the rural / farming world about whether set aside should be compulsorily re-introduced. You are probably aware that this is a policy that takes a proportion of a farm out of production in any one year in order to qualify for European payments.  This highlights the ongoing tension between food production and environmental benefits in the light of continuing payments from Europe to farmers who qualify for them ( which is most of us ! ).

Of the money farmers receive each year from Europe, currently 18% is taken at source by our government to fund various environmental projects or activities. In order to qualify for some of that to be repaid we have chosen for instance to trim half of our hedges in any one year, to sow 6 metre grass strips against ditches and leave skylark plots within crops etc. You may have spotted where we are doing these.

One of the key indicators used by DEFRA ( the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs  ) to measure the health of the countryside, is the numerical occurrence of 13 selected species of birds. DEFRA is saying that there is a fall in the numbers of birds within this survey set, between the 1970’s and now. Campaigning bodies such as Natural England and the RSPB are pressing the Minister, Hilary Benn, to re-introduce set aside to something like 5% of each farm’s eligible cropping area in order to retain the environmental benefits believed to have arisen from the time in the 1990’s and early 2000’s when set aside was used to control over-production of subsidised arable crops.

In 2007 compulsory set aside was dropped when it was recognized that there was a world shortage of grain developing and world stocks had fallen below what was considered a safe strategic level. Extreme climatic events world wide, (drought and flood), together with increased demand for wheat for example from China, pushed up the price of grain on the world market by over 100% though the wheat price has subsequently fallen by 2/3rds of that increase for the time being. World grain stocks however are still low.

But back to the birds ! It is our experience that we are seeing more birds than we have for a long time. We now see buzzards, sparrow hawks, barn owls, tawny owls, green woodpeckers, spotted wood peckers and lapwings, many of which I never saw here when I was a boy. We have more skylarks and wagtails but less house sparrows and starlings. We also have cowslips, violets and primroses reappearing in our ditches .

There is a view that birds of prey and cats are causing some of the apparent reduction in small birds ? What effect does the concreting of front gardens for car parking and tidy gardens have on bird feeding and nesting ? What is your experience in your gardens and as you walk in the countryside?

Do you consider farmers should be encouraged to maximize grain output and therefore be allowed to take up environmental schemes voluntarily? Or should farmers have to take land out of production for wildlife habitat purposes even if world grain stocks are low.

Christine and I want to be good stewards of that part of the countryside that we farm and at the same time run a successful and profitable business. I know many other farmers who do too. I do not believe that the majority of famers fit the out of date caracature of wanton sprayers of pesticides and grubbers up of hedgerows : but more on that another month.

What do you think ? Are farmers good or poor stewards of our countryside and it’s food producing capacity and wildlife habitat ? Are we as a nation so used to being well fed that we have grown complacent about the precarious balance of food stocks and future demand from a world population expected to continue growing apace?

Perhaps there needn’t be a battle between food production and wildlife habitat and we could meet both objectives voluntarily ?

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