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.

View on subsidy from down on the farm

How the UK’s relationship with the EU will change our countryside is definitely a hot topic at the moment. And the impending shake-up of farming subsidy has put rewilding right at the heart of the debate too, largely thanks to George Monbiot.

What you might not see is the article about what an end to the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) could mean for Wales in the latest Natur Cymru. It’s worth finding a copy because it’s a fascinating read.

The magazine’s editor James Robertson is a farmer himself and argues that taxpayers’ money should go to farmers who are delivering public benefits, but not to ‘commodity’ farmers.It could bepaying recipients to do things like reducing flood risk, capturing carbon and encouraging wildlife.

Of course, we’ve heard that elsewhere, but he also has interesting things to say about the politics of agriculture.

Being paid to manage land would be an attractive option for many struggling farmers across Wales, he argues, but that they are unlikely to be heard. He predicts that what we will hear – loud and clear – is the megaphone voice of a minority, the commidity producers whose interests are championed by the farming unions.

Brexit’s threat to the lie of the land

All those castles rather give the game away, don’t they? When William the Conqueror’s friends and relations wound up in Wales they weren’t coming to enjoy the view.

Now you may be wondering why I’m on about the robber barons of another millennium, but bear with me. Today, we learned who is currently getting the best out of the CAP payments system.cilgerran

Huge sums of money go to landowners largely for doing not much more than owning land. Apparently, the top 100 shared no less than £89m.

The lucky 100 are a mixed bag, but its no surprise that ‘old’ families seem to do very well from this hand-out. A couple of years ago two economists looked at how surnames relate to wealth, and it turned out that people with Norman names are still doing better than the rest of us centuries after their ancestors’ land grab.

On the whole, a Baskerville, Darcy or Mandeville is likely to be better-off than a Bowen, a Davies or a Morris. No surprise then that as you look down the list of those getting the biggest slice of the farm subsidy cake there are plenty of dukes, earls and the like.

Take the Duke of Westminster, whose distant ancestor was William I’s chief huntsman. Many generations later the current duke’s farming company chases subsidy, winning a handsome £437,434 in the latest hand-out.

You can find out how much your neighbours have had in recent years by visiting the website of the body that co-ordinates UK payments. It lets you put in a postcode and then up comes names and numbers, so I now know that in my postcode area alone 70 recipients share no less than £1.2m.

Brexit means Brexit, and it also means that this sorry system has to change. The situation was summed up nicely this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme by the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin. If you weren’t up before 7am you can catch up with it here on the BBC website (fast forward to about 35:00).

In a few mintues of chat he takes you from the wine lakes and butter moutains of the 1970s to the current (crazy) arrangement, which sees landowners get paid by the acre. He also explains how that has pushed up land values, which prices many wannabe farmers out of the market.

Of course, things are going to change with Brexit. And optimists look to a future that serves the majority of people far better; for example, George Monbiot says we can bring an end to what he calls the ‘unembarrassed robbery of the poor by the rich’.

It would be nice to think it could happen. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed – but maybe not holding my breath. The current arrangement is a system that has served people who have know exactly when to pull up the drawbridge.