Shooting Times readers are a shrewd bunch and most will have noticed the calamity that is taking place in the British countryside ? a change that seems to be beyond the grasp of the rural media pundits as they prance round the countryside with cameras, microphones and laptops, poised and ready for action.
It is a dramatic change that has affected huge swathes of Britain. Dairy farming, that once thriving section of British agriculture, which produced both a beautiful landscape and the wildlife to go with it, has become an industrial process, turning cows into milk-producing units and fields into wildlife deserts. The meadows that once produced skylarks and grey partridges, as well as grazing and hay, have been transformed into high-yielding, intensive monoculture rye grass, which, from March until the end of October, is shaved as often as a skinhead?s pate.
How many readers actually shoot over dairy farms? [Ed: I do]. How many of these farms produce an abundance of gamecover and habitat? And how many of these farms have healthy populations of pheasants, partridges and hares? Dare I ask how many dairy farms can boast a wild bird shoot? I think we all know the answer.
What is just as bad is the fact that dairy farmers themselves are becoming almost as rare as the wildlife on their farms. In 1995 there were 28,000 dairy farmers in England and Wales. At the end of 2010 there were only 11,102 and they are going out of business at the rate of nearly nine a week. In the past 12 months 449 farms have gone out of cows ? this in a country whose best crop is grass. Whole valleys that were once green have turned brown as the cow has been replaced by the plough, leaving 1.5million litres of milk to be imported a day. These figures are the bare bones ? they hide the farming suicides, the anxiety, the misery, the wildlife wipeout and the way in which intensive farming has changed the attitude of those still producing milk towards their animals and their land.
The death of dairy farming?
Why should this interest readers of Shooting Times and those who shoot? Because the intensifi cation of farming diminishes the traditions and culture of the countryside. It also reduces the amount of land available for traditional country pursuits. And why do I write this? Simply because I find the present situation alarming, and also because I was born on a farm where my father had a small dairy herd that provided him with a monthly milk cheque, and enabled him to produce not only milk but also a beautiful farm with plenty of wildlife. Yes, we had cows on the farm, but we also had brown hares, grey partridges and skylarks. And as part of the farming system my father made hay that the cows loved when they were in the yard during the winter. It was a simple system and a good one.
After my father, my brother kept the dairy herd going until 1981. Then he accepted a Government inducement to ?get out of cows? ? dairy cows, at least. He was conned ? we all were. The politicians told us that there was a milk lake and a butter mountain and both had to be reduced. They failed to tell us that this surplus was largely caused by overproduction in other parts of Europe. So the gradual destruction of Britain?s dairy industry began as part of European ?rationalisation?. It accelerated in 1993 with the destruction of the Milk Marketing Board. Competition was imposed and milk producers became subject to the free market, not a guaranteed price, and gullible farmers and their representatives fell for it. My old father saw through the hype: ?It will kill off dairy farming as we have known it,? was his simple verdict, and he has been proven right.
A free market depends on a willing buyer and a willing seller. But over the years that has not been the case. Thanks to the power of the supermarkets, milk prices have been dominated by a strong buyer and a weak seller ? the free market has been distorted and the turmoil among dairy farmers has been the obvious result. Tony Blair promised to break the arm lock of the supermarkets. He was as successful at that as he has been as peace envoy in the Middle East.
To stay afloat, many dairy farmers have had to intensify. They have created a financial and farming treadmill of working both the land and their cows harder. This means more cows per acre, with the fields being forced to produce more grass each year for silage and haylage (hay is now almost a relic of a bygone age). The new buzz words are ?clones?, ?GM crops? and ?zero grazing? ? where the cows are kept indoors 365 days a year. This madness has been given the usual descriptions: progress, efficiency and profitability ? the buzzwords of charlatans and dodgy politicians for generations. It has inspired me to write a poem…
Clone, clone on the range,
Where the test tubes and chemicals play.
Where never is heard a discouraging word
And the cows don?t see sunlight all day.
The tragedy of test-tube farming
It is not much fun being a test-tube cow on a dairy farm in 21st century Britain, I imagine. The cows are usually Holsteins, the breed with the largest milk yield in the world. They have doleful, appealing eyes and are gaunt and too bony for beef, with their large, swinging udders. Many will be inside all day and every day, with an exercise yard or paddock if they are lucky, and they?ll undergo artificial insemination and embryo transfer. Little of the life cycle, or even day cycle, is natural. Often after just two calvings the cow will be clapped and ready for slaughter, then to arrive on the supermarket shelves as dog food and, perhaps, burgers?
Outside, from early spring to late autumn, the forage harvesters will be cutting the grass fields down to ground level at running speed. No birds, animals, flowers or insects stand a chance. In some valleys where dairy farms still rule, hares haven?t been seen for years, and if they arrived the harvester?s blades would quickly mince their leverets.
A bold attempt to do it right
A few days ago the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), whose most extraordinary achievement until that point was never to have featured on Countryfile, did something even more extraordinary. Zac Goldsmith MP, who is a trustee of the CRT, opened a fantastic new dairy. After leading the way in wildlife-friendly cereal farming in East Anglia, which involved a 500 per cent increase in wild pheasants, the CRT wants to attempt the same thing with dairy farming, to produce cow-friendly, wildlife-friendly and farmer-friendly milk.
In 2006 Jo Baker, an incredibly generous lady from Frensham in Surrey, gifted the CRT Pierrepont Farm, which lies between the villages of Frensham and Tilford. With it came her beautiful herd of Jersey cattle to graze by the crystal-clear River Wey. It must be one of the most beautiful farms not only in Surrey but also in southern England. With dairy farming in the doldrums, we want to farm in a way that encourages wildlife, is good for the cows and produces a decent living for our tenant, Mike Clear, and his family.
The CRT again wanted to go against the flow. The new dairy was built to take the threat of slurry away from the river, and with luck it should keep the farm going for the next hundred years. The farm?s wildlife includes roe deer, brown trout, orchids and much more. In our new clocktower we hope to lure swifts and we are creating a pond to supply swallows with mud. Silage is made, but we hope to limit early cutting and, one day, to entice hares, grey partridge and barn owls to the farm.
It is a huge financial risk at this particular time, but other, larger charities have completely ignored the issue of the wildlife deserts of dairy farming and so we decided we had to seize the nettle. Oh and guess what? Countryfile failed to cover the opening ? what a surprise.