Some subjects are guaranteed to heighten emotions, start arguments and possibly a fight. For example, Hearts v Hibs, Hawick v Gala, wind turbines anywhere, and whether membership of the European Union has been a good thing or a bad thing.
Another attracting increasing attention is the Scottish government’s target of 650,000 more hectares of woodland and forestry to be planted within the next 40 to 60 years, at the almost inevitable expense of grazing for sheep.
The old saying about “Live as if you will die today, farm as if you will live forever” applies even more to forestry. Planning ahead four or five years is one thing, planning ahead 40 – average life span of commercial firs forestry – or 100 years and more for hardwoods, is quite another.
In one way, planting trees is one of the most satisfying things I’ve done. In another, no matter how satisfactorily most are growing, it can cast a slight pall on a morning when considering that I’ll never see any of them full grown and mature, unless cryogenics makes some rapid strides.
But for many sheep farmers in the past the question of satisfaction from growing trees never arose. Blanket-cover forestry schemes in the 1960s and 1970s that cleared thousands of sheep from Borders, Northumbrian and other hills caused massive resentment.
Such planting still does, coming or going. That is, coming when sheep are removed and trees planted; going when commercial forestry clearance starts and large, heavily loaded lorries make life miserable for villages they pass through and cause havoc and damage on local roads.
Some farmers converted over the years. Small-scale hardwood planting and shelter belts, suitably encouraged by grants, have been integrated onto many sheep and cattle farms. Estate owners, also encouraged by grants, have always been in favour of tree planting where possible.
But not all farmers have been convinced that planting more trees, in the past or now, is a good thing. As represented by NFU Scotland, they want more say in how, or if, the Scottish government’s 650,000 hectare increased area is met.
Nigel Miller, NFUS president, said, reasonably: “Future land use should not be a choice between farming or forestry, renewables or conservation. All can be accommodated if the policy framework can be coherent and integrated.”
Coherent, integrated and policy are words seldom heard in the same sentence when discussing any government’s attempt to do anything except when expressed, as in this case, as hope. It’s when discussions start and action begins that things usually start to unravel.
It will be interesting, and in some areas of the Borders as well as elsewhere, that might be putting it mildly, to see how the tree planting plans work out over the next few years.
Much will also depend on what happens to market prices for sheep and support payments for hill farming over the next few years as changes are made to the EU’s common agricultural policy. If trees pay better than sheep, opposition to more woodland might fade away.
Trees was only one of many subjects on Mr Miller’s mind in the past week or two as he heads towards his first anniversary – in February – as NFU Scotland president. Representing a diverse membership means he has to speak up for the concerns, sometimes esoteric to nit-picking, of every sector of farming as well as consistent effort on the broad political fronts of the EU and dealing with the Scottish Government.
Individual electronic tagging of sheep, for instance, remains a running sore as farmers complain that what they see as the intricacies of this recording system, and problems with electronics, make it unworkable. And expensive. And unnecessary.
Milk prices have occupied the union a lot in the past year. As has the fact that 12 years on from EU legislation being introduced to improve welfare for battery hens, as the January 2012 deadline is reached British producers have complied at an estimated cost of £25 per hen place, but more than 50 million hens in 13 other EU member states will still be in illegal cages. Where, say the small percentage of NFU members who keep hens, is the fairness in that?
Support payments for hill farming are always high on an NFU president’s list because sheep and cattle farmers make up the bulk of union membership. Not to mention low pig prices, malting barley contracts, renewable energy policy, tenant farming reforms and arguments and much more, including animal health.
It’s not going to get any easier. In his end of year message, Mr Miller said: “We’re entering a period of incredible change, with technology and genetics providing new opportunities within our production systems. We are also facing change over the next 12 months with CAP reform and new European regulation, perhaps a new Scottish food standards agency, a new agricultural college system, a new approach to veterinary surveillance, land-use changes and opportunities for renewable energy.”
I hope he’s getting one or two days off over the festive season, a hope I extend to all farmers and their staff. There’s a long 12 months ahead.