13th March 2018

Farm Diary

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In the last few days we have had the snow and freezing winds of late February / early March. It is on such occasions that pheasant shoots are particularly helpful to the indigenous bird and mammal life. The extreme weather and frozen ground makes foraging for seeds impossible and without the shoots many songbirds would die within a few days without food.

Let me explain – although the shooting season finished on 1st February gamekeepers will still put out wheat and other feeds for the pheasants and partridge to keep them on their local area. The song birds such as blackbirds, finches etc.. will also consume this feed which greatly improves their chances of survival in the harsh conditions. Additionally the game cover crops that were planted last summer will still have food for the songbirds and mammals such as deer and hare. The vital contribution of shoots to the local ecosystem in helping survival rates at the most challenging times of the year is often forgotten by the anti-shooting lobby.

The game cover strips have a range of species depending upon the soil type, position with regard to the prevailing wind and sun etc. The species used include some of the following – kale, artichokes, quinoa, vetch, trefoil, radish, millet, mustard, canary grass, linseed and maize (sweetcorn).

The different crop mixes provide food for a wide range of species thus helping the ecosystem and encouraging biodiversity.

In last month’s Villager it was suggested that farmers are not enterprising in planting crops such as Quinoa but as can be seen from the previous paragraph quinoa has been planted in the UK for many years – I first planted some in 1988. It needs to be remembered that if a plant species only grows on alkaline soil there is no point in planting that seed on the heavy clay cap soils, which tend to be acidic, found in this area. Quinoa prefers a pH of 7 to 7.5 which is why none is grown commercially in this area – it is easy to suggest that different crops should be grown and that farmers are not enterprising – but the reality is that crops cannot be grown that do no not suit the local soil or climate. It is important that any crop must have a market that gives a return. Many niche crops yield much better and more reliably in warmer climates and the importers / food processors nearly always source from the cheapest origin.

Mention was made last month about grass strips being removed from farmland. This is not true. The grass strips are planted to provide wildlife habitats and are not provided for public access – to use them is to tresspass. Unfortunately many walkers do see them as available to all and by their actions limit the hoped for environmental advantages of providing ground nesting sites for birds and refuges for deer, hares etc. Many walkers have dogs and a dog’s natural instinct is to hunt which is what they do and disturb or kill nesting birds or their chicks or chase the mammals. Sometimes an inquisitive dog can scare the parent birds so that they abandon the nest with chicks which then starve to death. The result is that these environmental strips (not walker’s strips) are being relocated to parts of farms where the public cannot easily gain access. Walkers should use the footpaths, bridleways and green lanes that provide a wonderful network for walking in the countryside but keep away from areas planted for the benefit of wildlife. Walkers and dogs are bad news for nature – please stick to the footpaths and let nature have its own areas.

Good news for shoppers – the UK government wants to “adopt a trade approach which promotes …. lower (food) prices for consumers”. This will mean that UK farms will have to move toward highly efficient and probably larger businesses for economies of scale to compete with low cost imports. At the same time UK Government says it wants to encourage small family farms and “green” farming – the 2 are not compatible. If there were some easy gains in terms of productivity, profitability or environmental gains they would have been done long ago – small farm businesses are ideally structured to make changes if an opportunity appears. For me the massive issue is that quite rightly the UK has very high food production standards but have to compete with food imports that have very few controls, if any, on how the food is produced and its environmental impact. Essentially we will be importing our food from countries that do not match our standards of welfare for animals (eg American beef produced in concrete feed lots fed mostly GM maize and grown with the use of hormones or British beef grazed on grass without the use of growth hormones), hygiene or the products used to produce that food – eg pesticides that are not approved for use in this country.

The consumer will have a choice – British food produced to high standards or cheaper imported food of dubious quality – which will you choose when in the supermarket?

Consumer surveys show that when questioned the majority of shoppers say that they will choose the better British product however analysis of actual buying trends show that most people opt for the cheapest product.

Minette Batters who has just been elected as the first female NFU President will have a busy time trying to influence the outcome of these proposals.

Back to this farm – lambing began during the cold snap and at present we have 3 sets of twins that are all doing well. The last of the 2017 lamb crop were sold on 13th February – thanks to David Hawes acting as drivers assistant for the journey – he found the market procedures interesting and seemed impressed by the whole operation. Spring planting will begin when the soils have dried – it is always a wonderful time of year when nature wakes after the winter slumbers – birdsong, fields, hedges and trees bursting into life and best of all some long, warm sunny days.

Julian Lewis

[Please note that this message is not posted on behalf of Bentworth Parish Council and does not necessarily reflect the Parish Council’s policy]

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