I read in the farming pages of my local paper that the RSPB was offering free bird surveys for farmers who wanted to enter land into the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes. You need a survey, carried out by competent ornithologists, to show that there is bird life worth preserving with public money to support your application, yet, for many farmers, finding somebody with the right credentials is a stumbling block. This is particularly so, since spring is the most fruitful time for such a survey and the local bird experts can only be in one place at one time.

You normally have to pay for a survey. I have often thought that these HLS surveys might be a nice little sideline for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. No doubt, however, there are practical obstacles, not least the ability to put the requisite number of people in the field. The RSPB is able to draw on its huge bank of volunteers, matching ornithologists in specific localities with land they might already know.

Having swallowed the publicity, I contacted the RSPB and was duly sent a survey application form. On reading this, I noted that it doubled up as a recruiting vehicle for the charity ? surprise, surprise. As it happens, I did not tick the I am interested in joining box, but I did submit all the required details of my farm, including a map outlining the land within a maximum stipulated area (80ha, I seem to recall).

Given that my farm is in a national park, that part of it is registered with the Soil Association as fully organic, that it includes two Sites of Special Scientific Interest and that we are smack bang in the middle of an HLS target zone, I was quietly hopeful. Surely, the RSPB would deem it worthy of a survey?

It is now several months since I filled in the forms and spring is fast approaching, yet I have heard nothing. Nowt. Not a sausage. No doubt the local ornithologists are swamped with invitations to survey land that is fizzing and popping with rare birds. It?s simply the luck of the draw, I reasoned. Better luck next time. I wonder if I still have time to hire a professional to carry out the work?

But then I happened to mention my survey application to a local farming advisor. He grinned, knowingly. ?Well, good luck with that,? he said, snorting. ?I applied to the RSPB for exactly the same free survey on my own farm more than a year ago and have heard not a dicky bird since. Nor has any other farmer that I know. In fact, if you succeed in actually getting a survey, you?ll be the first in this area.?

I was taken aback. I wonder if the RSPB?s offer to farmers is quite as generous as it says on the tin? Is it merely a publicity tool, or a clumsy recruitment mechanism masquerading as farmer-friendly support, which gets the charity good coverage in the farming press? Are you automatically excluded if you fail to tick the right box for membership? Or is the explanation simply a matter of demand far exceeding supply in my particular area? If any reader has actually benefited from one of these free RSPB HLS surveys, I would be interested to know more.

A rigged market?

As the massed ranks of ?useful idiots? oppose the ?sell-off of our forests?, the one organisation that could be said to personify Middle England, the National Trust (NT), has been curiously reluctant to make any public criticism of the Government?s plans. Could it be that the mighty NT (which has 3.8million members) is quietly relishing the opportunity to snap up the more interesting Forestry Commission holdings at a massively discounted price? After all, it seems that the NT?s members are on the verge of forcing the Government to ring fence the most desirable woodlands for charitable bodies such as, er, the National Trust. In any other context, of course, this would be called a rigged market.

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