Comment: Remove stigma off modern farming

Modern farming is unfairly blamed for a decline in hedgehogs, says the CLA's Robert Frewen.
Modern farming is unfairly blamed for a decline in hedgehogs, says the CLA's Robert Frewen.
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I DON’T know about you but I’m a bit fed up of modern farming methods being blamed for a host of environmental problems. The phrase is so widely bandied about by social commentators that it is now generally accepted as received wisdom.

The most recent example of this is concern over the large drop in the hedgehog population. According to many reports, the destruction of hedgerows by farmers in pursuit of modern techniques is a major contributing factor.

The reality of the situation is that hedgerows have enjoyed protected status for many years. A statutory bar has protected all hedges over 20 metres long since 1997 and, under the Common Agricultural Policy, hedges have also enjoyed strong protection. In addition, the various agricultural grants from Europe have included significant payments to farmers to replant hedges.

The net effect is that in the past 25 years there has been an overall gain in the length of hedges in the UK. Sadly however, when it comes to a good “farmer bashing” story, the facts rarely get in the way.

Another example is the drop in the number of so-called farmland birds such as the skylark and ground nesting varieties like the grey partridge. Here again, modern methods of farming are routinely cited as being the root cause.

Any countryman will tell you that this is smoke and mirrors. You don’t need to do a lot of detective work before much more likely culprits, such as domestic cats and birds of prey, come in to the frame.

England now has more raptors than at any point in the last 100 years and their effect on other birdlife is well-documented. There’s an authoritative Dutch study into the catastrophic effect of sparrowhawk predation on the songbird population while the Joint Raptor Study at Langholm demonstrated the terminal damage done by hen harriers and peregrines to all ground nesting species on moorland.

What’s more, in the case of the grey partridge, one of the major culprits is the hedgehog, which will happily feast on any partridge eggs it comes across.

The finger of blame has also been pointed at farmers when it comes to the alarming drop in the bee population. The use of neonicotinoid insecticides has been highlighted as a concern but a recent study in the US cited a previously unrecognised larval parasite as the real problem.

Nevertheless, neonicotinoids have now been banned by the EU, forcing farmers to use older chemicals to which many pests have developed a resistance. As a result, European oilseed rape production is expected to have fallen significantly this year at a time when the pressure to feed a rapidly growing global population has never been more intense.

Once again, the situation is far from black and white but a slamming indictment of farmers and their methods makes much better headlines than a proper study of the complex scientific relationship between food production and the environment.

My plea to all those who help shape public opinion is please stop using the indeterminate and undefined throwaway - modern methods of farming - in a derogatory and unproven fashion. It is unfair to the farming community and it further separates us from the urban community we grow food for. Unless we can identify the real problems, we will never find the right answers.

Robert Frewen is regional surveyor for the CLA in the North.