Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Shooting rabbits

When I was about six years old, my father taught me how to shoot.
No doubt this was an act of gross irresponsibility on his part. I’m sure that if my childhood had been delayed by a generation or two, then instead of playing Cowboys and Indians, with toy guns and rolls of paper caps, I would have probably grown up doing something far less corrupting – alone, in my bedroom, surfing the internet.
But Dad’s shotguns were real, and local farmers used to pay him half a Crown for each dead fox. My diet, in those days of brilliant blue skies, was never long without rabbit or pheasant.
I remember my first air rifle – a Diana 23 Junior – and how it seemed to take me forever to line up the front sight, as my under-length arms struggled to hold the heavy barrel steady. My intended prey had usually bolted long before I pulled the trigger.
Half a century slipped by before I took aim again, this time with a much more powerful Chinese-made .22. This modern rifle has a telescopic sight, which I can easily adjust for wind, and I’m pleased to report that so far not a single lead pellet has been wasted.

The target of my new-found sniping is the legion of rabbits which have colonised the wood, and which now seem determined to march upon the house, digging holes all over the field on their way.
Until a few months ago, most mornings I counted a dozen bunnies on the lawn – before silently sliding open the bedroom window, taking aim, and slowly reducing their number, one at a time. The rabbits do now seem to be getting the message.
I relate this part of my daily pre-breakfast routine not to upset any animal lovers: I enjoy seeing rabbits in the wild; I just enjoy rather less seeing what they do to my garden.
Rabbits remain one of Britain’s major agricultural pests, even though today they present nothing like the epidemic which we faced prior to the introduction of myxomatosis in 1953. Nevertheless, the 1954 Pests Act not only allows me to shoot rabbits on my land, it actually obliges me to prevent their spread to my neighbours.
Measures other than shooting appear disproportionate – I would need a huge amount of fencing, which the government says would have to be designed to keep the rabbits in, rather out. The fences would also need badger gates. The use of ferrets, for me, would be too time-consuming and I have always disliked the idea of traps. The Health and Safety Executive even publishes advice on how to kill rabbits using poison gas, but I’m afraid that – to me – sounds like a disaster just waiting to happen.
There seems to be no shortage of organisations urging me to Do Something About The Rabbits – Defra, Natural England and Cornwall Council all say that pests must be controlled, but none of them is offering to do the job for me.
My dead rabbits end up in a small incinerator, completely in accordance with 21st century health and environmental regulations. I would much prefer to cook and eat them, but I simply don’t have time. If any local butcher wants them, no payment need change hands.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Busy doing nothing

About a year ago the government promised us it was on a mission to create a “paradise” for bees. Next weekend I plan to join in with this national exercise in pollinator-promotion and build a beehive. It will be tucked away, in an old orchard, and with luck the bees, due to arrive in the spring, will mostly look after themselves.

As I now seem to have the space, and time, I’m more than happy to help heed the warning of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature: more than a quarter of European bumblebees – and nearly one in 10 of all honeybees – are at risk of extinction.

The government’s initiative, 12 months ago, saw Defra putting bee hives on the roof of its headquarters. I wonder how that’s working, given that the roofs of Whitehall are not blessed with an over-supply of flora. 

Only a cynic would suggest it was simply a photo-op for an otherwise unknown minister.

The press release heralded “Motorway verges, railway embankments and forests will be used to create bee and insect friendly paradises as part of the major new strategy to protect the 1,500 species of pollinators in England.” I have to confess to my ignorance about what a “bee paradise” actually looks like, but I’d be surprised if it included the miles of plastic cones which seem permanently to adorn motorway verges.

Attached to the press release was a 36-page glossy document titled The National Pollinator Strategy. “Over the next 10 years it will build a solid foundation to bring about the best possible conditions for bees and other insects to flourish,” it says.

The strategy encouraged us to plant more flowers, particularly wild flowers, cut the grass less frequently, not to disturb insect nests and to “think carefully about whether to use pesticides.”

I can only imagine the mayhem in Defra High Command as officials argued over whether or not to use such inflammatory language. After all, the government is currently facing a High Court battle over its decision to exempt some of the dangerous chemical pesticides banned by the European Union, following lobbying by the National Farmers Union on behalf of Big Cereal – an industrial sector where crop-spraying has been endemic since the end of the Second World War. Farmers say the chemicals are needed to protect crops from devastation by the cabbage stem flea beetle.

The European Food Safety Authority says the pesticides clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam pose a “high risk” to bees when sprayed on leaves – yet the government seems determined to ignore its own Pollinator Strategy. A case of “do as I say, not as I do?”

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Bringing home the bacon

I said goodbye to my pigs last week. They were back within days, enjoying an even-more-carefree space, in the freezer.
The pigs had spent five months helping clear my overgrown wood, and although I’ve raised a small amount of cash through sales of the occasional joint, I’m very much an amateur. The pigs were an enjoyable and useful hobby, roaming free in the wood, removing brambles, blackthorn and stinging nettles. They were also surprisingly good company.
The scale of my agricultural interests is vanishingly small. I live on a St Mabyn smallholding with chickens, ducks and geese, and occasional sheep, and although I am registered with the Rural Payments Agency and Defra’s Animal Health department, I certainly don’t claim to know very much about the practical side of farming.
I was surprised, therefore, to get a phone call from Cornwall Council’s Trading Standards office, inviting me to join their register, too. Trading Standards had picked up on the computerised record of animal movements, and wanted a bit more information to find out what I was up to. A brief conversation ended with the Trading Standards official politely declining my invitation to visit – his records were up to date, and he was happy.
Some might see this as an unwarranted intrusion into privacy, or an example of how bureaucrats are driving small-scale operators out of agriculture. I am not one of them. Despite my lack of expertise, I welcome anything that drives up standards of bio-security and animal welfare.
Pigs are notoriously prone to disease. More than a decade ago, I reported in considerable detail on the Foot and Mouth epidemic which closed down the countryside and brought the British livestock sector to its knees.
I am also old enough to remember the 1967 Foot and Mouth outbreak, when I first learned of some of the biology behind disease transmission – and of how Foot and Mouth disease used to be endemic in Britain, with most rural communities harbouring the illness to some degree at some time.
In those “good old” days nearly all agriculture was local. Whatever disease there rarely spread beyond the nearest market, and seldom lasted long. But it was there nonetheless. Now that animals can be transported hundreds of miles, the risks of a national disaster are vastly increased, and only one batch of dodgy pig food away.
So well done Cornwall Trading Standards. As they say at MI5, the price of security is eternal vigilance.