i’ve read quite a lot of George Orwell’s work, book reviews and essays, as well as novels and journalism, but no-one remembers everything they read – I’d be happy with 10 per cent, no, make that five. All right, one – so no surprise recently to find a quote I didn’t recall.
Perhaps the source was a bit more unlikely, the farming section of Private Eye. You didn’t know that fine organ had one? It does, although headed The Agri Brigade, written by “New Bio-Waste Spreader” – it used to be “Muck Spreader” – and usually given over to attacking government departments, agri businessmen and subsidised, polluting farmers indulging in environmental vandalism.
Apart from that, it’s quite balanced and occasionally illuminating. Target of the column in the issue I read was the huge decline in farmland bird species between 1970 and 2010, almost certainly because of – according to Spreader – intensive farming methods.
Spreader starts with the claim that in a survey 10 years ago, as farmers and agri-chemical companies tried to fight off plans for a pesticide tax, 86 per cent of farmers said that conservation was an important part of their farm management.
He noted that might come as a surprise, when “not many farmers are interested in bio-diversity unless the result of it can be put to flight by a dog and shot.”
To back up that assertion he quotes the survey on wild bird populations published by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last autumn. Overall bird populations have remained much the same 1970-2010, he says – I’m assuming Spreader is a he, the kind of assumption without proof that is Private Eye’s stock in trade – with one big exception.
That is farmland birds. In 2010, 19 species identified as relying on farmland for food and survival were at the lowest levels yet recorded. Most are down to half or less of the 1970 figure and a few such as the grey partridge, tree sparrow and turtledove were down by about 90 per cent.
Spreader – who is, I suspect, a farming commentator from the same stable as the late, and in my case unlamented, Anthony Rosen – is not as critical of this decline as might be expected because, he says, the business of farmers is to produce food, not to make conservation their priority.
He understands farming economics. Farmers have to compete to rent, or buy, land. If they don’t produce as much as possible, they will fare badly compared with those “who have squeezed the last ounce of productivity from their land more profitably.”
The “greening” of the European Union’s common agricultural policy (CAP) now being discussed would redress some of that balance, Spreader suggests, with up to one third of a farmer’s subsidy withdrawn unless they make much greater efforts at conservation.
Spreader is probably writing for effect there, and also probably wrong. For one thing, the CAP negotiations are unlikely to produce any single result as dramatic as that. For another, the main struggle at negotiations is between the bigger, more advanced, countries such as Germany, France and Britain paying most in to the EU farming budget, and the poorer countries more dependent on farming, mainly in Eastern Europe, who want a fairer share of subsidies.
When it gets right down to it, remembering that for the first time these CAP changes have to be approved by the European Parliament with all the vested interests that involves, conservation will be well down anyone’s wish list.
Be that as it may, Spreader concludes with a critical, half-amused, statement: “To many non-farmers, it is a mystery why those who spend their working days amid the wonders of nature aren’t more interested in wildlife conservation.”
That’s when he quotes Orwell, back in 1944: “Real rustics are not conscious of being picturesque, they do not construct bird sanctuaries, they are uninterested in any plant or animal that does not affect them directly … those who really do have to deal with nature have no cause to be in love with it.”
On the same lines, I once got into big trouble with the purists at a Burns’ supper when I suggested the Bard was not a particularly good farmer – a true farmer wouldn’t have noticed the ploughed-up mouse, he’d have been too busy concentrating on the straightness of furrow or worrying about mildew in the next field.
Spreader makes some valid points including the fact that profit comes first for many. Some squeeze land hard. Hedges are still ripped out. Every pound is a prisoner and scale of operation is the benchmark.
But I know several farmers on a modest scale who do a lot for conservation and wildlife because they believe we’re all just passing through and should try to leave the land, and what lives on it and by it, in as good, or better than, state as it was when we took over.
And as the tireless farming advocate Guy Smith pointed out in the next issue of “Private Eye” the DEFRA survey only looked at 19 of the 60+ species of birds found on farms – the numbers of some of which, including chaffinch, woodpecker, barn owl and fieldfare, are increasing. Facts can be so irritating.