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Divide and rule

My last blog post  reported on the publication of draft Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2020 by the Welsh Government. I am trying to understand why some of Wales’ most beautiful rivers have been allowed to become so impacted by pollution in recent years, particularly as a result of the intensification of the dairy farming industry.

I’ve been looking into the background to agriculture in Wales and comparing it to England, to put those draft regulations - and the problem as a whole - into some context. This post is a part of that process.

I have a fly fishing friend who has held some senior public positions and advises on policy at government level, so on the few occasions when our chat turns to such matters I tend to listen, and my terribly insightful thoughts about what fly we need to tie on go on hold.

I was writing a story about canoeing and struggling to get to grips with the different policies and laws in England, Scotland and Wales. We were in the throes of what seemed the interminable Brexit debate and he had just been on a series of fact finding missions around the UK.

He said he thought the home nations were becoming ever more distinct and that Brexit was turbo-charging the process. He thought that soon, in just a few years, visiting Scotland would become as different an experience when compared to England as visiting, say, one of the Scadanavian countries.

It stuck with me and I’ve found it useful as many of the stories I cover for Fly Fishing & Fly Tying Magazine involve all three countries, not least the future funding of agriculture now that the decision to leave the EU has been made.

In England, the mantra is ‘public money for public goods’. So farmers will be paid for increasing biodiversity, carbon sequestration, maintaining or improving the quality of water, and, as the more cynical might have it, ‘taking care of the views’.

The glaring omission from the list of public goods in England is ‘food’. This has caused much resentment among many farmers in England because they see their primary purpose as food producers. And this is important. To notionally strip them of what they see as their fundamental role before the eyes of the public represents a kind of emasculation to them. Conceptually, the policy was generally considered to be a victory for the environmentalists.

It is a generalisation, but younger farmers, producing niche products for (usually) environmentally aware customers, seem to be taking to their new role as publically funded guardians of the environment while accepting the rules of the market for their wares, rather better than some of the older.

Radio 4’s On Your Farm (broadcast 19th April 2020) showcased a prime example. 

The blurb to the programme says: “Their winning formula is grass fed milk, in returnable glass bottles, from cows which rear their own calves. Sam [Bullingham] tells Sarah Swadling they’re farming almost as his grandfather did 60 years ago on the fringes of Dartmoor.”

“I think environmental payments as a reward are the way forward,” Sam tells the interviewer. “We have got to remember all the other problems that are going on in this country at the same time. Road networks in Devon aren’t great. NHS in crisis, education problems, people on benefits. So we can’t very well sit here and ask for handouts that are getting no significant, tangible benefit to every tax payer.”

Whereas if Sam and his Taw River Dairy Farm can point to environmental improvements they have carried out, then the taxpayers can see what they are getting for their money, he argues.

“If you’re getting a blanket payment regardless of what you are doing, that is very difficult to justify in the modern economic climate.” says Sam.

If you google ‘Taw River Dairy’ and ‘Sam and Katie Bullingham’ they and their Jersey milk in glass bottles are, to use a colloquialism: ‘all over the media like a rash’. They know how to sell themselves and good luck to them: it isn’t enough for farmers to just farm any more. These two are perfectly suited as flag-bearers for the new, English landscape, they have that most precious commodity of all: a good story.

Meanwhile in Wales the situation is different. But then so are the circumstances of the farmers. 

In England, 17% of land is classified as ‘areas of natural constraint’ (i.e. difficult to farm due to natural conditions). This compares with 81% of land so designated in Wales. In England, farms are more likely to be large and profitable, whereas in Wales they are more likely to be small and dependent on subsidy. 

Across the UK as a whole, currently between 50% and 60% of farm incomes come from CAP subsidy. In Wales the figure is 80%. Interesting then that while there are no firm figures it is thought that a majority of farmers were in favour of Brexit, but less surprising that the farming unions were dead against it.

It is also interesting that initially Wales aligned itself with England in wanting to do away with the basic payment subsidy post-Brexit. While the reintroduction of the Agriculture Bill during the Johnson parliament does nod towards a need for Ministers to consider the production of food in a sustainable way and to report on food security at least every five years, the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ remains firm and intact.

(The political battle is not over in England though, and the COVID-19 crisis has breathed new life into the farmers’ campaign. The highly effective NFU President Minette Batters said in an EFRA Committee session when calling for yearly reviews on the grounds of food security: “If you think back to the days when we had empty shelves [when ‘lockdown’ first imposed] I know there were many in government who were absolutely petrified at what they were witnessing. Back to that old adage: ‘If you can’t feed a country you haven’t got a country’.”)

Wales meanwhile is developing a more tempered approach, their farming unions are fighting a more successful battle to retain their primary purpose as being the production of food.

A Welsh Agricultural Bill is to be introduced, and Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, promises a White Papertowards the end of 2020 which will set out the context for the future of Welsh farming and pave the way for an Agriculture (Wales) Bill.”

Dipping into the consultations and responses reveals the players’ positions. In the response to the first consultation: ‘Brexit and our Land - Securing the future of Welsh farming’, the Welsh Government writes: “We now propose to pursue an overall objective of sustainable land management. Our ambition is to have sustainable farms producing both food and public goods in a system which enhances the well-being of farmers, communities and all the people of Wales.”

That first consultation produced 12,000 responses. In a revised consultation, ‘Sustainable Farming and our Land’, The Welsh Government now writes: “We have carefully considered the views expressed in the consultation and have made a number of changes to our proposals. Of most importance, our proposals now explicitly recognise the interaction between food production and environmental outcomes.”

But the Government clearly hasn’t gone far enough in the eyes of  NFU Cymru because it writes in its consultation response summary: “Overall, NFU Cymru remains highly concerned that the proposals remain focussed on developing an environmental based policy. We are clear environmental obligations have to be balanced with economic, social and cultural objectives or farm businesses will be threatened and our rural communities will be poorer.”

Meanwhile the dairy farming industry continues to pollute welsh streams. Not all farms - it is as naive to be dismissive of all farmers as it is to buy into the yoghurt pot tops that portray the country idyll the supermarkets would like us to believe. But enough are behaving badly to prompt then Natural Resources Wales (NRW) Chair Diane McCrea to write to Minister Lesley Griffiths in July 2017 to point out the “unacceptable number of slurry pollution incidents that have been experienced across Wales” and what NRW would like to see done about it.

Lesley Griffiths herself said on social media in December 2019: “The level of agricultural pollution in Wales is unacceptable. I will decide in January on stronger regulations to achieve the best environmental outcomes more quickly across the whole of Wales. They will not be voluntary and will focus resources where they are most needed.”

Whatever measures were subsequently taken were clearly not enough to prevent the precipitous decline of salmon and sea trout - those great barometers of a river’s  health - in the once abundant rivers of Wales. As river conservation charity the Wild Trout Trust reported on its news site, by July 2019 NRW revealed that “sea trout and salmon stocks are at their worst levels on record and there is a trend of ongoing decline.”

The evidence, say NRW, based on fish catches in 2018, show that “all salmon stocks and about half of Welsh sea trout stocks are below safe biological levels.” 

As NRW admits in a soon to be published report ‘A plan of action for salmon and sea trout in Wales - tackling the salmonid emergency’  it is not expecting this situation to improve any time soon, “until at least 2024” the report says.

While it would be wrong to place this decline solely at the five bar gate of the dairy farming industry, so too would it be misleading not to recognise its significant role in the degradation of Welsh rivers - something that report, incidentally, seems oddly reticent to do.

So that is something of the background to the publication of those draft regulations for water. One last point. If you would like to buy a bottle of milk produced by Taw River Dairy and enterprising young farmer Sam Bullingham, producing it just like his Grandfather might have done, it will cost you £2.75 for a litre with a pound deposit on the bottle, so that is £1.75 per litre, which I make 80p a pint in Brexit. In my local supermarket, a non-returnable, plastic carton of milk costs me £1.15 for 4 pints - 29p per pint.

Whenever I get the calculator out like that I immediately feel the finger of blame swinging round and pointing right back at me.


22nd April 2020


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