2015 was certainly a year to forget if you are among the majority of dairy farmers outside those few whose contracts pay them enough to cover their production costs.
If, like the majority, you are losing in excess of nine pence per litre (ppl) – and some up to 16ppl – over your production costs, it’s not so rosy. For the dairy industry generally it is equally disastrous for the many stock workers, and indeed cows, which will go down the road. It is also bad news for the many small rural communities who will lose their heart when old village herds go, grasslands are turned over by the plough and local farming families are increasingly replaced by absentee owners. Many of these, under financial pressure, then sell off surplus farm cottages and empty the rural settlements of their old staff. By the time the herds go it is too late. As I have said before, no stockman in his right mind will ever return to the job now.
Progress on the flood proofing of our defences along the Arun has been slow. Six months of fine weather were missed while a local planning officer misread planning laws, obfuscated on an industrial scale, then departed on holiday without delegating our case to an assistant! The problem was eventually overcome by the help of my local MP. The end result was that the planners accepted work can proceed, with no more hoops to jump through and, best of all – and possibly unherad of – with profuse apologies. But it should never have come to that in the first place.
The current project is to build a new bund to stop the torrent pouring off the nearby water meadows onto our arable land which will make a huge difference to our cropping options. But, longer term, the concern of other local farmers and myself is the situation we are going to be left with once the dust settles on the efforts of the Environment Agency (EA) to abdicate its responsibilities along the Arun Valley and its river, ditches and banks. These vital structures have been progressively neglected for the past 20 years, indeed almost since the agency came into being. The loss of this work will leave their huge staff with the onerous task of moving papers between desks, and making coffee. Oh, and meetings!
It is not only the dilapidated banks/bunds and ditches they will now be requiring farmers to take responsibility for, along with the penstocks, sluices and pumps. If the agency gets its way responsibility for the latter will soon fall specifically on the shoulders of the farmers on whose land the pumps are sited. This is a gross imposition since, as most are aware, water follows levels, not boundaries. In numerous cases a pump could be situated on a low lying 20 acre holding where the water is draining from a 500 hundred acre neighbouring farm. The owners of that adjoining land will, at this stage, be under no obligation to contribute to the pumps; neither to their maintenance or running costs, which could run into several thousand pounds a year. So the person with the pump picks up all the costs. Very unfair – and very EA. It is surely going to lead to a very litigious period because farming communities in similar situations are getting extremely irritated at the EA’s evasiveness and their own selective interpretation of the facts. One thing it seems they have not yet done is proven the ownership/responsibility for these assets – largely, it seems, because they appear to have little documentary history backing them up. The feeling is they have either shredded it or simply lost it. I purchased our farm three years back, with no mention of ownership, responsibilities or liabilities for banks or sluices. There is some way to go with this one I think.
An added dilemma for them is the little whirlpool ramshorn snail, which grows no bigger than five millimetres, and inhabits the RAMSAR sites in the Arun valley. On the European endangered species list, it seems the more frequent, severe floods inundated these sites of special scientific interest and meadows in the valley for long periods with untreated, polluted water and contaminated silt from the Hardham (and other?) treatment plant. Were the water able to flow out to sea quicker it would not be a problem but, due to the silted up river between Pulborough and Arundel the waters breech/overtop the banks and simply spend days lying on the water meadows. This has deadly consequences for invertibrates, small mammals and hibernating reptiles – all in all, it’s disastrous for the local ecology.
Such floods destroy habitats of the snail and local water voles. Yet all this could be avoided with some long overdue river maintenance.
As I think I have said before, the situation is being made worse for affected farmers and landowners since the EA has increasingly become little more than a statutory agency of the RSPB, thanks primarily to a couple of recent heads of both organisations, Chris Smith and Barbara Young. Both appear to have had unwarranted and excessive influence over the direction of the EA, and have been far more inclined to neglect land drainage and allow rivers to silt up nationwide on the presumption that such wetlands encourage bird life, which of course now gets almost more attention than food production. I too love birds but the whole thing has gone mad.
As I write this we have been anxiously awaiting the results of the inconclusive animal tested for bovine TB two months ago. A re-test result was due on 26 November and with the state of the dairy industry it could change our lives if she doesn’t go clear.
Having given up wishing farming folk the impossible dream of a prosperous new year, may I at least wish you all a peaceful and healthy one.