Heading for the hills

A moment’s thought on the subject of sheep. Like most reasonable people, I hate meetings and this morning’s session was no exception.

Today’s ordeal was that bit harder to bear because the morning was such a good one. I’d had to drive over the Preselis on the way and they had looked picture-perfect; so much space, sunshine, rising mist and, to add detail, some sheep.

As the meeting dragged on I was busy imagining an escape to the sunlit uplands, and was beginning to put together a blog post; working title: ‘Which farmer?’ However, when I actually sat down to write I had a quick look at Mark Avery’s excellent blog – and found that he’d mostly beaten me to it.

There’s been a lot said, and written, recently about future landscapes, rewilding and what farm payments might look like after Brexit. Clearly farmers have to be part of this national conversation, but all too often that just means giving air-time (or page space) to the NFU.

Mark hits the nail on the head when he says: “Just because a barley baron and a sheep farmer both live in buildings in the countryside called farmhouses doesn’t mean that their business interests coincide.” Farms come in all shapes and sizes.

I’m a rewilding enthusiast and I’m delighted at how quickly that idea has moved to the heart of things. Much of the credit for that has to go to George Monbiot, who argues his case with passion and clarity.

I take George’s point that Britain’s uplands have been ‘sheepwrecked‘, with past over-stocking doing all sorts of damage. But I don’t have much enthusiasm for a sheep-free future that fails to take account of culture and history.

Gareth Wyn Jones does a good job putting the hill-farmers’ case, and it would be good to hear more creative thinking from him, and from OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhis colleagues. Hopefully BBC Radio 4’s new series ‘Against the Grain’, which starts on Monday, will be giving hill-farmers a platform.

Billed as an investigation of the current state of the industry, its presenter is Charlotte Smith of ‘Farming Today’. Over the years she must have met just about every farmer in Britain, so I’m sure the programme will have input from all sorts – not just the NFU barley barons.

Count maps flutter-free summer

This was the year when my butterfly-counting was supposed to have done a ‘quantam leap’. Or, I suppose, you could say take flight.
I’ve been doing my bit for Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count for years, but decided this year it was time to give up on scraps of paper and blunt pencils and start using the charity’s app.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sadly, though the app is good, 2016 wasn’t as good for butterflies. I’ve had my phone handy whenever I’ve been out and about, but there hasn’t been much for it to do.

Across Britain the weather wasn’t that bad, but the survey results show a Wales-wide collapse in many species’ populations. For example, small tortoiseshell numbers were down on 2015 by close to half.

Most others species saw downturns that were between 30 and 40 per cent. One or two did buck the trend – most notably, red admiral and large white.

Sadly, records show the sharpest drop in numbers has happened in Wales, although England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all experienced something similar. You can read a break down of the results here.

The strange thing is that 2016 had the sort of weather that would usually have been good to butterflies. It was warmer than average and fairly dry.

BC admits to being mystified, saying that the very mild 2015-16 winter may have had a negative effect, or perhaps it was the cold spring. Or, maybe pesticide use is really beginning to take its toll.

Wales and the ‘State of Nature 2016’

It took me a few days to get around to reading the State of Nature 2016 report, which was launched last week. It’s not that uplifting to know that the UK is one of the “least natural countries in the world“, so I put it off.

But there’s no point playing ostrich, is there? And it turns out to be a very impressive piece of work, pulling together a compelling case for the change that Sir David Attenborough demands in his foreword.state-of-nature-report-2016-cover

There’s not much on how that change should happen though. It’s a very detailed examination of a gravely-ill patient, but offers less on how to effect a cure. Maybe that’s understandable given that it has been created by pooling the knowledge of just over 50 conservation and research organisations.

You can find both the UK and Wales-only reports here. As the debate about a post-Brexit approach to the countryside gets going, they make it clear that the something different has to happen.

For example, the audit of the populations of Welsh priority species says 33 per cent get a red light because they are declining, 43 per cent are amber, or stable, and only 24 per cent are in the green ‘improving’ category.

It all adds up to a rather depressing picture, so I’d recommend that you read the report alongside the speech that Trevor Dines, from Plantlife, made at its launch. It’s an inspiring call to action.