One job I have, every year, is cutting next year’s firewood. This winter I’ve been tidying up corners of the yard from time to time, mainly with an axe and chainsaw. Out here (a mile from a gas terminal) we don’t have gas, and one of our main sources of heat is the open fire.
One side effect is that I’ve been able to watch gas prices with some dispassion. After all, the oil we need for our cooker hasn’t been capped or anything, it’s just gone up and the media hasn’t particularly bewailed our fate. Still, whilst cutting next year’s firewood (hopefully some will be for the year after as well) I do wonder what the world will be like when we come to use it.
I’ve been watching the Ukraine with rather more interest than I’ve been watching gas prices. Some of the commentators have said things along the lines of, ‘The Russians are waiting for a cold spell, as January has been too warm and they want a sharp frost for the tanks.’ If so, they could be disappointed, because the forecast for February in Kiev (or Kyiv) is to be milder than usual. If the Russians don’t invade, the weather might be the reason.
Frankly I can think of no other reasons. We’ve had a lot of posturing but I think it’s becoming obvious that the Ukrainians are being hung out to dry. People are threatening economic sanctions, but with the Germans depending on Russian Gas, and the EU seeming to be equivocal on the level of sanctions they would impose, I can see Putin assuming that people are going to posture but now do anything.
From his point of view, he could do with a cold snap, the ground hard enough for his tanks, and the wind biting enough to get Germans turning up their central heating.
But from a farming point of view, what does it all mean? Well the EU imported 13.6 million tons of grain from the Ukraine. Most maize, but to put it in proportion, the UK produced about that amount of wheat in 2018, so it’s a lot. Given the broad grain fields of the Ukraine are classic tank country, either they’ll be under Russian control or nobody will be ploughing them.
But at the time when we suddenly need more grain, the price of gas has gone through the roof, pushing up the price of fertilisers. In December 2020, imported Ammonium Nitrate fertiliser was £217 a ton. In December 2021 the same fertiliser went up to £632 a ton. I’ve talked to a lot of farmers and a surprising number of them are assuming their yields will drop because they cannot afford to buy the usual inputs.
On top of that, the pressure on agriculture from all the environmental lobby groups, the general public and even the government, is to ‘go green’ and do more environmental things. I’ve looked carefully at the new Sustainable Farming Incentive. Like the cry to ‘plant for trees to save the world,’ it is impossible to see how we can keep up output and join these schemes.
There’s a general feeling that government will have to step in this summer and do something to hold gas prices down, perhaps by a subsidy to the suppliers who’ll pay it back when the price comes down. If the price comes down. But I think the situation is going to get far more difficult than that. If there is a war in the Ukraine, it’ll be more than gas prices that go up.
I wonder if next year, when I’m burning that wood, I’ll be reading up on a Defra scheme to increase food production, perhaps by encouraging farmers to use more sewage sludge as fertiliser, and to farm more intensively? Perhaps a Russian invasion will be turned back by Extinction Rebellion protestors gluing themselves to the roads in front of the tanks; on the grounds that the tanks have diesel engines and they’re polluting the environment. I suspect one scenario is about as likely as the other.
There again, what do I know, ask an expert
As a reviewer commented, “Dipping in and out of this book, as ever with Jim Webster’s farming anecdotes, is a great way to relax – although thought provoking at times, despairing at others, the humour is ever present, and how welcome is that in these times?”
The whole system of farm payments is up in the air. To be brutally frank, this isn’t surprising. On a general, first world level, governments have blown so much money on the pandemic they are scrabbling behind the sofa for loose change. I would be surprised if, in five years’ time, any country hasn’t cut its agricultural support, or moved the money from one heading to another so it can burnish green credentials whilst still claiming to support farming.
But here in the UK we’re perhaps further down the road than many others. The problem comes when you assess the money spent in agricultural support. Originally, when you delve back into the past, the initial purpose was to ensure that UK (and EU farmers) were able to compete against foreign producers who didn’t have the same costs, many of them imposed by EU and UK regulation. It has long been accepted that consumers are not willing to pay for the higher standards that those who lobby for them claim that consumers want. So if we want an agriculture in the UK (and the EU) farmers had to be compensated for the extra costs the state imposed.
As an aside I’ve been somewhat amused to hear civil servants and ministers say that farmers cannot be subsidised ‘just to obey the law.’ Funny really, the whole CAP was based on doing just that.
The problem came when all agricultural support was paid through one scheme, ‘single farm payment,’ or ‘basic payment scheme’. When the money went out in scores of different schemes it largely passed under the radar. But when it was paid out through one scheme, there was one damned big heap of money sitting there. Every lobby group, every other government department, cast eyes on that pile and tried to work out how they could get some.
One way was ‘Rural development’. After all it was the ‘second pillar of the CAP’ and the idea was that some money destined to go to farmers would be used to support the infrastructure that would help their businesses. In one case a particularly smart local authority got rural development money to pay for a bus shelter.
Then there was environmental spending. The idea now is to support farmers through environmental payments. In itself it isn’t a bad idea. The problem comes when government takes money from the SFP/BPS pot and puts it into the environmental pot. Remember, the regulations, the extra costs, imposed on the industry are still here, and frankly are not going to be removed. But doing the work necessary to get the environmental payments is not cost free either. So the farmer who moves across to environmental payments now has to pay the costs entailed in the schemes, and if there is a ‘profit’ the farmer still has to pay the cost of the extra regulation out of that. By definition there isn’t as much to put towards these regulations as there was.
Finally it’s been suggested that farmers might have to hire advisers. This is understandable. The House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts has produced its Environmental Land Management Scheme report this month. One comment was, “We are concerned that ELM [Environmental Land Management Schemes] will be too complex and bureaucratic, and will not cater for the full range of farm types and circumstances.” So you have a scheme that is too complicated and bureaucratic and farmers will have to hire advisers to negotiate a way through it. Even if the money is paid for by the scheme, not by the individual farmer, the money is still being paid out of the same pot.
So now we are in a position where the scheme will pay expensive advisors to advise farmers what environmental schemes they should enter, but which they can no longer afford to join because they cannot make a living once they’re in them.
My advice to any farmer is to look at each scheme as if it were another crop. You have to ask yourself can you afford to grow it? What are the margins?
Now I’ve looked at the schemes and will apply for one on hedgerows, because, in reality, I’m doing that anyway. It is the only option of all the schemes that I can enter without it costing me more to earn the money (in a combination of new costs and lost production) than I’ll earn. It’s the only option that will not lead to me cutting production. As you’re the ones who eat that production, look forward to buying more from abroad.
Here’s the graph of world wheat prices for the last two decades. Still looking for cheap food?
Amusingly enough the government and the bureaucracy are also saying that farmers will have to become more efficient.
Let us look at the figures a moment Beef and Pork are both cheaper, allowing for inflation, than they were in the 1960s. The consumer can pay less, in cash terms, for milk than they did in the 1990s.We’ve had sixty years of driving prices down. Perhaps we should suggest that MPs and Civil Servants should prove their efficiency by going back to their 1995 salaries?
There again, what do I know? Speak to the real experts
I love Jim’s autobiographical musings. They make me feel that I am following him and Sal, his dog and manager, around the farm as he encounters the vicissitudes of everyday life. I feel I’m wandering around after him, with his great narrative style.
This book, along with the others in this series, are an absolute treat and gives us the opportunity to explore life in someone else’s head.”
On the twelfth of February (or thereabouts, as the land agents say) a friend of mine posted a quite spectacular photo of a fire on Dartmoor. The difficulty is that this is an accident waiting to happen. Winter wildfires are not unusual. At the same time firefighters were tackling a fire near the Cogra Moss reservoir, in West Cumbria (hence the photo from one of our local papers.) In Scotland the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) was called to reports of a wildfires on the islands of Benbecula, Harris and Lewis.
I heard on the radio a senior Scots fire officer discussing the Scots cases. This happened whilst much of the country was covered in quite deep snow. (Canadians, you would not have bothered clearing the drive) The fire officer commented that it was not uncommon for his men to drive through snow on their way to tackle these fires.
He pointed out that the basic problem is that whilst we think of our winters as being wet, in reality things can get very dry. That is something I can empathise with. Here in our bit of Cumbria, if we relied on spring sunshine to dry the ground out, we might be able to travel on much of our land by August. What saves us are those easterly winds we often get in February. They’re cold, they can cause problems with freezing and wind-chill. But often they’re not quite freezing and they are very drying. They’re not fun to live through but we need them.
I remember one year when they forgot to stop. We got to the start of May and grass on the east facing slopes was thin, blue and crispy. It crunched as you walked over it. Grass on lee slopes, facing west, had grown perfectly normally. You could see the difference between different areas in the same field. That was exceptional and gives you an idea of what it’s like when you have too much of a good thing.
Our moorland fires are due to the grass and foliage on them drying out in the easterly winds. Whilst a fortnight before, everything could have been sodden, now it’s tinder dry. So people who wouldn’t even think of discarding a cigarette end or similar in summer, don’t see it as a problem in February.
And then there’s the problem of why we have too much grass and foliage. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the EU subsidy systems were based on the numbers of sheep you had. There was a headage payment. As there was virtually no profit in sheep, people were keeping numbers just for the subsidy. Indeed I heard of one outfit where they were buying cull ewes, putting them on rough ground and not tupping them. The last thing they wanted was these ewes lambing. Lambing sheep, looking after lambs etc was just a cost. They were doing it purely for the headage payments the EU was paying. This led to overgrazing, which damaged the peat and reduced the heather. In the 1990s these schemes were stopped, and indeed a lot of environmental schemes were started with the aim of getting things back to what they had been. Now those in charge are beginning to admit that this hasn’t worked. At the upper levels, the admission has largely been inadvertent and accidental. It came when the government wanted to ‘roll over’ environmental schemes so farmers whose scheme ‘ran out’ before the new system was ready wouldn’t be left without support for their environmental work. Embarrassingly some contracts cannot be rolled over. This is because the scheme hasn’t worked and standard government accounting procedures forbid rolling over of schemes that aren’t working. This is not unreasonable.
Now if a scheme doesn’t work because a farmer hasn’t keep their side of the bargain, the money is just clawed back. But these didn’t work because the designers of the scheme got it wrong. In many cases the farming industry told them they’d got it wrong at the time, but what do we know. After all, we’re not experts.
The trouble was that a lot of ‘experts’ designing these schemes assumed that if you had a landscape of peatland and heather which had been overgrazed by sheep, then all you needed to do to help that landscape recover was to remove the sheep.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work. If you massively understock, then you get an entirely different landscape. On Dartmoor the environmental schemes have produced large areas of a grass known as Purple Moor Grass (Latin name is Molinia). Apparently there are thousands of hectares of this stuff, it forms large tussocks which are hard to walk through. Molinia has thrived because whilst cattle find it very palatable between May and July, sheep hate it and avoid areas dominated by it. After July, cattle won’t bother with it either.
In theory the fact that cattle will eat it should be the answer to the problem. Stock the moors heavily with cattle and they’ll start hammering the Molinia and if you work carefully (perhaps with fencing and similar) you could protect the peat and encourage the heather. It’s a pity that hill cattle aren’t economically viable isn’t it. Even if they were, the difficult is you have to feed them for twelve months, not just three. So really you’d need to have somebody buying all the big rough bullocks they could find, running them across Dartmoor, making sure to keep them on the Molinia infested areas, and then selling them on at the start of August. You might have to keep it up for a few years but it would probably work as part of an integrated management system.
Except it would break down because nobody outside the area would buy the cattle when you wanted to sell them because of the risks of bovine TB, so the cattle would need to be finished locally. I suspect it would be cheaper if you had farmers set up the system, working with environmentalists and then just work out how much the farmers lose on it and cover their costs.
But unless you do something, you’ll have the risk of fire every winter, as this Molinia (and don’t forget the gorse as well) dries out and then burns.
The burning grass isn’t as bad as it can get. When it gets really bad is when the peat catches fire. Now winter fires, where the peat should be wet and is with any luck frozen, are hopefully less likely to cause the peat to burn that the summer fires. But once the peat starts burning, then you get major environmental impacts. In 2019 twenty-two square miles of blanket bog in the Flow Country, between Caithness and Sutherland in Scotland, burned. The WWF Scotland study claimed 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent was released into the atmosphere as a result. Apparently this was pretty much the same amount released across the rest of Scotland during the same period.
Just to add to your problems, once a peat hag starts burning it can quite literally keep smouldering away for years ready to flare up in the next summer. Planting trees under these circumstances prevents nothing, as the trees can burn as well.
Obviously Dartmoor, Cumbria and the Western Isles are different areas, but the problems have largely been caused by understocking. It’s been discovered that merely taking sheep off a fell doesn’t return the fell to what it used to be. This isn’t surprising, what it used to be was the result of a management system, not the result of abandonment. Rather than abandoning the land you have to reintroduce the management system which created the environment you want. Now it’s not as if this is something that has crept up on us without warning. During 2001 and the FMD outbreak, there were a lot of summer fires in Cumbria because there were no sheep to eat off the grass. With the fells being understocked the amount of forage left uneaten simply increases. On Dartmoor it does so because the Molinia spreads, in other areas there are other causes but the root cause tends to be under-grazing.
So if with climate change we are going for hotter, drier, summers, then summer fires on the fells look like being a regular occurrence, and they will start getting into the peat.
Now the answer is not just put a million more sheep or Dartmoor (or wherever) because that won’t fix it either. After all, sheep won’t eat the Molinia. Not only that but what works for Dartmoor won’t necessarily work for Cumbria. Indeed what works for the valleys in the west of the Lake District may not work for those in the east. So we need somebody to draw up environmental schemes with enough flexibility to do something entirely different in one part of the country to what can be done in others. So schemes that have prescriptive dates or tight conditions everybody has to meet are right out. Now the fact that the Government can now come up with a bespoke scheme for the UK, rather than having to try and take a scheme which is designed to cover everything from Finland to the Greek Islands, must surely be an advantage. I await with interest to see whether our civil service are up to the job.
There again, what do I know? Speak to the experts!
For this collection of stories, our loyal Border Collie, Sal, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.
As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians). One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows: There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”
Actually this was going to be ‘diking in your shirtsleeves’ but that apparently means different things to different people. Here a dike is a hedge which is normally set on a ‘cop’. The dike cop is two ‘dry stone walls’ set about a yard apart with space between them filled with soil and stone etc. And here again I’m running the risk of falling foul of all sorts of algorithms because I’m laying a hedge (or in my culture, laying a dike).
Last year we dug the drain out that runs down one side of the dike and put up a good fence. So I decided this winter that I’d finish the job off properly, lay the dike and then make good the fence on this side as well.
The problem is that my Grandfather ought to have tackled this hedge back in the 1950s when we still had labour. I’m doing the job at least sixty years later than it should have been done.
Looking down the hedge, it isn’t as much a hedge any more as a long narrow copse. The ditch on one side kept it in place, but on the other side it’s pushed its way through one fence and was in the process of devouring a second one erected later. A lot of the old hawthorn is dying, and cutting it right back, removing all the dead wood and rubbish will hopefully revive it. Then I can hopefully work a lot of the new, younger stuff into the hedge as well. But it’s one of those jobs where your best friend is your chain saw. There is just so much rubbish to cut out. Also everything is so entangled. To be fair, that’s one reason why we use hawthorn, because it does interweave and make a good stock proof barrier. The problem here is that the good stock proof barrier is about six feet off the ground and below that you can push between the various boles easily enough.
So I work out which of the vertical stems I’m going to keep. Then I cut out those that I don’t need. Following this I cut away the entangling bits from the ones I do need. Finally I cut diagonally down through the stems I want so they’ll bend over and lie down but still keep their connections to their roots. Note that when I talk about stems, some of these I can just get both hands round. So it makes sense to trim a lot of their upper canopy away, otherwise they’ll be too heavy to lay into place. And all the thick stuff that gets cut out is cut into six foot lengths, put to one side, and my last job of the day is to put it on the saw horse and cut it down to lengths for burning on the fire. Today’s hedging cuts next winter’s firewood.
So in a couple of years, hopefully we’ll have a vigorous hedge with no gaps, and in sixty years’ time, somebody will doubtless curse me as they try and restore order once again.
The problem we face is that whilst I know people who can lay hedges, you need time and to an extent you need the weather. There are only so many months in which you can lay a hedge. Traditionally it’s when there is an ‘r’ in the month. But EU regulation and cross compliance cut this down a bit. Also you cannot do it when it’s too cold or stuff splits off rather than lays nicely, and equally obviously, I’ve got better things to do in the rain. Similarly high winds mean you cannot do the job either. So last winter I got virtually none done.
Then there’s the fact that, with food production becoming more and more marginal, there is less labour about, and the labour we have is far too busy to do jobs like this. We have the ridiculous situation of people, their mouths full of cheap food, complaining that they don’t like the way the countryside is going.
To an extent I can see the justification. It actually makes sense to subsidise food (because the poor spend a far higher proportion of their income on food than the more prosperous do) and then take money in tax of those who are doing OK, to put back into agriculture.
But the problems are caused by not merely how much money they put back, but how they put the money back. It’s how the various schemes are designed. A lot of the environmental schemes over the years have not been very good. Now a lot of environmental schemes are effectively contracts farmers will enter for a period of so many years. When the period is over the farmer can take on another contract. But because all the schemes are changing because we no longer have to just use the EU schemes, some contracts will run out before the new scheme will be available. The idea was that the contracts that ended would just be ‘rolled over’ for a couple of years until the new one was ready and farmers could then transfer seamlessly from one to another.
The problem is that some contracts cannot be rolled over. Basically, the various agencies have had to admit that the scheme they designed hasn’t worked. And you aren’t allowed to roll over a scheme that doesn’t work. (Which is sensible, it’s an attempt to stop public money just being poured to waste.) Now if the reason the scheme hadn’t worked is because the farmer didn’t fulfil the contract, the money would be clawed back. That can be done and is done. But these schemes haven’t worked, not because the farmer hasn’t done what was asked, but because what the farmer was asked to do was never going to work. The designers of the schemes didn’t know what they were doing. It has to be admitted that in some cases farmers told them ten or fifteen years ago that the schemes wouldn’t work. Fifteen years later, the designers have probably retired on decent pensions, whilst we’re left with fifteen wasted years.
Still, Tuesday was a good day. For once the weather behaved, the sun shone and I ended up taking my jacket off and working in my shirt sleeves. There must be worse ways of spending a nice day in January.
There again, what do I know? Talk to the experts.
For this collection of stories, Sal, our loyal Border Collie, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.