Trendy environmental schemes threaten our food security - Sarah Todd

With one environmentally trendy scheme or another the rich tapestry of England’s green and pleasant land is changing forever.

It was sad to read in the agricultural press this week about a council selling off yet another tenanted farm; once upon a time a lifeline leg up onto the farming ladder for young farmers.

Putting the holding on the open agricultural market - rather than letting it to a young farming enterprise as was always what was meant to happen with local authority farms - would have been sad. But to hear of it being lost to tree growing is a bitter pill to swallow.

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The farming community in Cheshire has vented their frustration at the sale of Hondslough Farm on the northern edge of Delamere Forest south of Runcorn. Yes, the wrong side of the Pennines for this publication, but it seems sadly symbolic not to report on.

A general view of cattle at a Yorkshire farm. PIC: Simon HulmeA general view of cattle at a Yorkshire farm. PIC: Simon Hulme
A general view of cattle at a Yorkshire farm. PIC: Simon Hulme

At just short of 100-acres this farm had done its bit; being used over the years for arable, beef and dairy. Just a couple of years ago the land yielded a bumper crop of potatoes.

The new owner, Forestry England, will have the once lovingly tended agricultural land planted up with trees by the time we are into the worst of winter, to “provide more space for people to enjoy, improved habitat for wildlife and a sustainable supply of home-grown timber.”

Farmers say it’s absolute sacrilege to turn productive land over to trees. Their thinking being there is plenty of lower grade (less productive) land that could grow trees. The outgoing farmer described it as “lovely, level loamy soil … to take it out of agricultural production is very unfortunate. But the council thinks it’s better to use the land to grow trees, rather than produce food. Agriculture is being put on the back burner, which seems to happen an awful lot these days.” Chester West and Chester Council has defended its decision, saying the sale of the farmland marries well with the authority’s commitment to tackling climate change, with the added benefit of creating more woodland for people to enjoy across the borough.

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All fair enough, but with so much land now being bought up by investors who want to tread an alternative path in their approach to owning acreage our country is becoming ever-more reliant on imports to feed its population. Which, as Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have shown, can have frightening consequences. Remember shoppers queuing and empty shelves?

The UK should be paddling its own canoe towards producing all the food it requires; not throwing the baby out with the bathwater by following fashionable fads on productive land. Rewilding has its place in the most inhospitable of landscapes, but good land should be used to produce good British-grown food.

Talking of new approaches to farming, Labour has pledged to ban the badger cull and the National Farmers’ Union is right to state the agricultural industry would find it 'hard to come to terms with' the party's stance.

TB is causing absolute havoc around the country; with entire cattle herds having to be culled and families’ livelihoods devastated by the ever-increasing badger population. There are some areas that are too important - such as health, education and farming policy - that should be above political point scoring. For the national good, they deserve to be sorted out by people who know what they are doing in each field. Not be pulled in different directions whenever there is talk of an election or a Minister moves on. Or, as some allege in the case of our former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, your wife doesn’t like certain schemes. To use badgers as a campaigning card is bad form; the countryside deserves better than having all the progress it has made towards the eradication of TB be ridden roughshod over.

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To finish, this is the third and final time that trains will be mentioned within these column inches. But it seemed somehow wrong not to share a journey up to Scotland. How amazing it is at Edinburgh to have real human beings at the station to help direct passengers to platforms and help old ladies with bags. Then, on the onward train up to Dundee, there was a tea trolley. The trains were spacious, with lots of room for bikes, luggage and anyone with children or disabilities.

Interesting to look ScotRail up and realise it has been nationalised since April 2022. Nicola Sturgeon might well have made some wrong decisions during her time as First Minister, but anyone who sets up a railway that has a tea trolley can’t be completely off the rails.