They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, which sadly turned out not to be true for the 71 journalists killed last year for trying to do their job. Fortunately life on the Cornish Guardian is not quite so risky, and I have no concern that the ability of this column to Get Things Done will come back to bite me.
Within days of last week’s Cornwall Council U-turn on public toilets, the government announced it was abandoning its plans to scrap statutory animal welfare codes. Two victories in a week! Well done, readers.
The animal welfare codes which I was banging on about last week had been due to be replaced by voluntary, industry-led codes from April 27. But on Friday (April 8) ministers said they had taken notice of “the views raised” and would be sticking with the existing statutory codes.
This week I’ll try my luck a degree further, and suggest a review of the rules which are failing to protect one of our best-loved wild animals, the barn owl. I’m sure that this suggestion will win me no friends in an industry which specialises in making poisons, but here goes:
No farmer I have ever met has set out deliberately to poison a barn owl. But food quality rules currently require an all-out assault on rats, which are capable of causing damage and disease at all stages of the food production process.
In 2013 companies which manufacture rat poison were thrown into panic by a European Union proposal to ban what are called Second Generation Anticoagulant Rodenticides because of the unintended consequences for the non-target species.
As a response, the industry lobbied and the Eurocrats relented, provided member states agreed to “high-level principles for rodenticide regimes.” The idea that there might be “low-level” or even “medium-level” principles might be a clue that this is basically just a wheeze for avoiding anything too serious.
The bottom line was a new labelling system that came into effect last week. Products which don’t have the right label can continue to be sold until September 30. They must be used by March 31 2017. You can now buy products with the correct label only if you have a certificate of professional competence.
So perhaps, very slowly, things are moving in the right direction – but clearly there is much more to be done.
One problem is that no matter how carefully rat poison is stored on the farm, it is impossible to make sure that it is eaten only by rats. Mice and voles can squeeze into tiny spaces, eat the poison, and then themselves fall prey. Scientists have found evidence of rat poison in several wild animals, including kestrels, red kites, stoats and weasels. Analysis of dead barn owns, in 2010, found that 91% contained rat poison. In 1984 it was only 5%.
Campaigners say the most deadly rat poisons should be used only as a last resort, once a rat infestation has been identified. Currently more than three quarters of all farms use rat poison as a preventative measure, regardless of whether they actually have problem.
Readers with long memories might recall that one of the reasons we have a fondness for barn owls is the useful purpose they serve to agriculture (when we’re not poisoning them). They eat rats.
It is often said that as a nation, we care more about animals than we do about children. A small and very subtle change to the way we approach agriculture might be about to test that theory.
I might just be lucky, but I’ve never met anyone who was deliberately cruel to animals. Having been close to agriculture for nearly my entire life, I’ve known plenty of farmers who’ve had plenty to say about animal welfare rules and regulations. But all – without exception – have always done everything they possibly could to prevent pain or distress.
As a reporter, I have sometimes had to cover court cases in which someone has been convicted of cruelty – but again, on each occasion, the neglect was due to ignorance or incompetence, rather than a deliberate act of policy.
In a case which was fairly typical, last year Cornwall Council prosecuted a farmer who had repeatedly failed to take advice about the welfare of his sheep. He ended up being sent to prison for four months. In most of the cases I have covered, the farmer had been close to or beyond retirement age, had some medical condition himself, or lacked the financial means to pay for veterinary or other expert assistance.
You don’t have to be St Francis of Assisi to think that animals have rights. The official “animal rights movement” is sometimes thought to have started in Britain in Oxford in the early 1970s, when a group of philosophers sought to end the distinction between the rights of human and non-human animals. Those views, at least in relation to agriculture, if not scientific experimentation, are now widely accepted as mainstream.
Later this month, on April 27 to be precise, the government will start to turn the clock back to an era when general public opinion – and the criminal law in particular – did not apply to the relationship between farmers and their beasts. In a move which is seen as the start of a much wider deregulation, the official welfare code on farming chickens for meat and breeding will no longer enjoy “statutory” recognition but will be replaced by a new voluntary code – drawn up by poultry farmers themselves.
The Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs, which increasingly seems to resemble the old Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (BSE, Foot & Mouth, you-name-it-MAFF-got-the-blame), is considering similar reforms for the cattle, sheep and pig sectors.
The law itself is not being changed, but the statutory codes have until now been used to give magistrates guidance on where those being prosecuted have fallen short, compared with good practice. The effect of the change could well make it more difficult to secure convictions.
That definition of “good practice” – how often animals’ housing is cleaned, access to water, freedom to roam etc – will in future be informed by organisations such as the British Poultry Council, which describes itself as “the voice of the poultry meat industry” whose mission is “to ensure the practical implementation and enforcement of UK and EU legislation, and to press for change where change is needed.”
Large-scale intensive farming must, of necessity, regard animals as products. The industry’s first duty is to its shareholders. Welfare is a secondary concern.
I don’t consider myself as unduly sentimental about animals, but I cannot help but be alarmed by what the government is doing – so far without any scrutiny in Parliament.
I am just off now to re-assure my own chickens that whatever they say at Defra, there will be no change to the poultry welfare practices in St Mabyn.
Exciting times up in the orchard, where my first colony of Cornish black bees arrived this week. There can be few people more ignorant about bees than me. Until about six months ago, I did not even know that there were more than 20,000 different species of bee, far less that some are rare and endangered, and that one of those is the Cornish black bee.
I realise that I am now in danger of becoming a complete Bee Bore, but the story of these black bees really is quite remarkable. Apparently, until about 100 years ago, they were the dominant bee throughout Britain and Europe, and had been for thousands of years.
Along with wild bees, the European Black Bee was responsible for pollinating the natural landscape and effectively selecting which wild flowers we still see today. But sometime between 1906 and 1912, something called Isle of Wight disease, caused by the accidental import of Italian bees, all but wiped them out.
Although at least 20 species went extinct during the 20th century, somehow the essential genetics of the black bee survived and a few years ago there was a determined effort to re-establish them in areas with suitable habitat. Fortunately one of these habitats is the area of North Cornwall where I live.
So now, in between writing stuff for the paper, I watch bees going in and out of their hive and listen to their happy buzzing. There are worse jobs.
Black bees are much darker than their cousins and have thicker, longer hairs which help keep them warm in cooler areas. But the main threat to their existence – a threat faced by all bees – is the loss of flower-rich meadows during the second half of the last century.
The great yellow bumblebee, for example, has disappeared from 80% of its historic UK range. It now relies almost exclusively on the low-lying grassy plains of Western Scotland. Britain’s rarest solitary bee, the large mason bee, is on the brink of extinction in Wales. The solitary potter bee, which flies very fast and darts between flowers, and which digs burrows to lay eggs in, is on the point of vanishing from the south coast of England (I did warn you I was becoming a bore.)
The disappearance of flower-rich meadows in many areas is an inevitable consequence of development, and of course houses have to be built somewhere. But much of our remaining agricultural land has for decades been drenched in pesticides and herbicides in our quest for cheap food – a quest which has been spectacularly successful.
Albert Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”