landlines

No appreciable rain since mid-March, and not a lot in the month before that, means that for all the countryside has looked so good during much of April it wouldn’t be farming as we know it if there weren’t some concerns.

Bare patches in some spring barley fields, for instance. There are few more pleasing sights than barley growing evenly across a field in good spring weather, rows straight, tramlines where they should be, no missed bits. And few more frustrating if patches of field are not germinating as they should because of lack of moisture.

The same bare-patch problem can be seen in some direct-drilled autumn sown crops this year, although slug damage might also be a partial cause there.

It will be interesting to see how the latest-sown spring crops, going into what were already dry conditions earlier this month, develop if the weather remains dry. At least one day of heavy rain would be welcomed by most farmers, if not by the millions now on Easter holidays.

As usual, things could be worse. According to reports, the southern US is suffering its worst drought since the infamous Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s, when thousands of small-scale farmers were bankrupted and families took to the road to be commemorated in books such as Grapes of Wrath and the songs of Woody Guthrie.

We’re unlikely to see that in the Borders and North Northumberland, but closer to home than Texas, and its worst drought since at least 1895, there have been soil-storms in parts of Europe as unexpectedly strong winds drove across recently sown fields. I haven’t seen that here yet, but in some lighter-land parts it can happen. As always, it’s being so cheerful that keeps us going.

The argument between vegetarians and the meat industry will never end, at least as far as the main protagonists are concerned. Each side is convinced it has right on its side – moral, economic, common sense, whatever – and won’t listen to the opposition.

As with politics of any kind, the battle goes on for the floating voter and last week the new chairman of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) believed he had strengthened the argument on behalf of beef, sheep and dairy farmers.

That new QMS chairman is, of course, Jim McLaren, who has just completed four years as president of NFU Scotland, stepping down a few weeks ago to be succeeded for at least a two-year term by Borders vet and farmer Nigel Miller.

Keen to make an impact, like any new chairman, Mr McLaren, got off the mark last week by highlighting research at Nottingham University on the efficiency and environment-friendliness of Scotland’s hill and upland beef herds and sheep flocks.

This work on sheep and cattle grazing by Professor Mike Wilkinson effectively considered one of the basic arguments used by vegetarians, that it makes moral and financial sense for humans to eat crops and plants directly rather than use them to feed animals to produce meat that humans eat.

Writing as a floating voter with a bias towards meat-eating I have come to accept that vegetarians might have a point when it comes to feeding large quantities of grain to produce beef – six to 10 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef depending on efficiency of production.

The argument is less convincing for pigs and poultry where the conversion rate of grain to meat can be as low as two to one. And vegetarians, arguing as they do quite reasonably from their entrenched position, take no account of the fact that most humans enjoy eating meat. Evidence of that comes time after time from developing countries, with China the most prominent recent example, where rising incomes are invariably accompanied by an increase in demand for meat.

But Mr McLaren’s case, based on Prof Wilkinson’s work, was the equally reasonable one that in Scotland, an argument that can be extended to the whole north of England, 85 per cent of land area is classified as hill, upland and moor, and crops can not be grown on this type of land to feed humans directly, at least not beyond subsistence crofting.

What can be grown is a range of grasses and other rough grazing to feed cattle and sheep in an environmentally friendly, efficient, way. The land being used in this way could not grow crops accessible directly in any way to humans.

Game and set to Mr McLaren and meat producers? I doubt that, but it is a reasonable argument and one that QMS is entitled to make on behalf of the farmers and the meat trade who pay compulsory levies of £4.8million a year, plus a £1million grant, to support its research, development and promotion of red meat.

More encouraging still, at least for farmers, are present high prices for beef, up about nine per cent on the year, lamb up more than 12 per cent and pork more than nine per cent. The roller-coaster races on.