landlines

Spring crops have been going into some lovely seedbeds in the first half of March and I’d like to take a little credit for that, having worried aloud last week that the snow and sleet on the first Sunday of the month was only a taste of what was to come. If there’s a more certain way for the weather to change than me making a forecast, I’ve yet to see it.

Instead of being a forerunner of worse to come, that miserable day was a one-off and, in direct contrast, Sunday past was as good a March day as anyone could ask for. Most others so far this month haven’t been far behind.

The long dry spell we’ve had, virtually all of 2012 so far, could mean problems ahead if it continues. But at present just about the right amount of soil moisture and warmth in it that can be felt means relatively easy establishment of seedbeds on most types of soil and a good start for spring barley and beans.

It also means that tractors spreading fertiliser and spraying are travelling the tramlines without deepening them or sending mud flying.

Ewes and lambs coming out of lambing sheds into sunshine and grass actually growing are also benefiting. It makes a welcome change from years when the weather was so foul that all available space in farm buildings was occupied by sheep as the backlog of new arrivals built up with increased risk of disease.

Fear of another disease is looming over this year’s lambing although so far I haven’t heard of any confirmed cases of Schmallenberg virus in Scotland or the north of England. By the end of last week, 121 cases had been found in the south of England of the virus that causes deformed foetuses in sheep and cattle.

In other European countries, Germany is apparently hardest hit with almost 850 cases confirmed. France has had 411, the Netherlands and Belgium more than 300. As these countries have much smaller sheep numbers than the UK, the percentage incidence of the virus is obviously higher.

But there is a danger of over-reaction to a new disease threat, to animals or humans. A classic example was the hysteria about bird flu a few years ago. It is more likely that the Schmallenberg virus had been around for several years before it was identified, because deformed sheep abortions, with several possible causes, are not rare.

That makes it more likely that rather than being a new version of the plague, Schmallenberg virus will become just one more of the disease hazards liable to affect sheep. Unlike some other diseases, however, trying to guard against the way it is probably spread, by midges, will be extremely difficult.

Human nature doesn’t change. There’s good, and bad, and then the majority of us who like to think we’re honest, but can be swayed by the prospect of profit or avoiding loss.

The result is that for every new tax law there will be a rush to find the loophole, for every honest, careful, banker there is a get-rich-quick banker or financial consultant. One man’s good business is another’s sharp practice. And for every change in European Union common agricultural policy subsidy rules there will be chicanery.

That was publicised yet again by the recent Panorama programme on how an Edinburgh businessman bought farm subsidy entitlements which have brought him annual returns of about 30 per cent while, as he said, far from having a farm he “doesn’t even have a pair of wellies.”

The same loophole of buying a subsidy entitlement and “naked” acres on some moor or mountain to go with it, has been used by astute – you can insert your own adjective here – farming businesses to make lots and lots of money from a system that was intended to safeguard the incomes of working farmers throughout Europe.

Since the CAP change several years ago that separated production from subsidy, much of the ire of working farmers, and potential new entrants who can’t qualify for subsidy, has been directed at the so-called “slipper” farmers. These are the estimated several hundred in Scotland alone who no longer farm, but still – quite legally under the rules – collect an annual subsidy.

What strikes me is that any kind of subsidy is always liable to abuse for the simple reason that there is no limit to how greedy some people are. No matter how much they have, they want more. Or to get the same for doing less. Or, in the case of “slipper” farmers, doing nothing at all.

Regrettably, what also strikes me, is that nothing can change that. EU officials say that the Scottish government could have changed the rules to stop non-active farmers collecting a subsidy. The Scottish government says it couldn’t. Nor could it stop those like the Edinburgh businessman or the Aberdeenshire farmer now worth, by his own estimate, about £50million, who has bought entitlements and continues to cash in.

The only way to avoid abuse of the system would be to scrap farming subsidies completely. And you don’t need me to tell you how likely that is.