Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Life is too short for all the paperwork

A young chap called last week to ask if he could look at my trees. He was from Western Power, and as the company had not looked at the trees for a few years, he wanted to check that they were not in danger of growing into the 33,000-volt overhead cables which have helped supply electricity to this part of North Cornwall since 1948

The visit set me thinking that running a smallholding is only partly about agriculture – and that if I had any appetite for all the legal paperwork concerning access, rights of way and that kind of malarkey, I would never have time to write this column. The wayleave consent which gives the company, its predecessors and successors, the right to do certain things on my land, is supposed to make me richer by about £4.20 a year. So my retirement plan is still on hold.

If I wanted to be greedy, I suppose I could kick up a fuss, but life is really far too short. This doesn’t stop “specialist” lawyers from writing to me with monotonous regularity, offering to share the profits should their suggested threatening letters produce the required result. There is an issue of principle: when the 1948 landowner agreed to allow the former Central Electricity Generating Board to plant the three poles which interrupt my immediate view, it was to help realise a wider community benefit.

Most people in this area, if they had any electricity at all, got it from an old Lister diesel generator. Only the most grasping and heartless money-grabber would have held the State-owned CEGB to ransom. But now, following various privatisations, the Western Power poles on my land are simply helping to swell the private coffers of the US-based parent company, Pennsylvania Power and Light. I nevertheless think I can resist the temptation to demand a better deal. As I say, life is far too short and the guys from Western Power are unfailingly courteous whenever they need to fix anything.
My trees are not currently a problem, although maybe in another five years I’ll have to do some serious thinking. A few months ago many farmers were being advised to check the small print, as the National Grid went round asking them to sign a new wayleave agreement as part of a record-updating exercise. Surveyors warned that this could bind the landowner to a limited annual payment, with no compensation for potential loss of earnings if the land had future development potential. National Grid was offering one-off sums of 20 times the annual wayleave payment – but this could remove the right to future compensation for loss of earnings.
There are similar issues for mobile phone masts, broadband cables, and in some areas, gas and water pipelines. The really complicating factor, which few think of at the time, is that the land in question might indeed have alternative uses at some point in the future. What is today a field might one day be a housing estate. At the current rate, what is a field today will probably be a housing estate by this afternoon.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The perils of chicken shit

If there’s one aspect to poultry-keeping which I really dislike more than any other, it’s cleaning out the chicken shed.

It’s one of those jobs which I can always find an excuse to postpone – but then guilt takes over, on go the overalls, and despite wind and rain off I go to wrestle with the really stinky stuff.
As any gardener can tell you, chicken manure is really good for your plants – so “hot” in fact that it should be composted for at least three months, otherwise the high nitrogen content risks damaging the very flowers and vegetables you are trying to encourage.
Well, no risk there. Once I’ve added another shed-load to the compost heap, my poultry poo tends to stay there. The pile continues to grow, to the point where I must now consider changes to the management regime. Either that, or take a more serious interest in applying the manure (let’s call it fertiliser) to the garden.
Luckily there is no shortage of official advice on how to look after chicken manure. As long as I comply with Article 13 F of the European Union Control Regulation 1069/2009 (I am not making this up) then I’m OK to spread it on the garden, or even in the field. As my chickens roam free, and tend to relieve themselves wherever and whenever they feel like it, I suppose I’d better check that they are fully conversant with this rule.
My fondness for bureaucrats tends to be at the lower end of the scale, but the trouble is, once you start looking at the reasons behind some of this nonsense, you find that it isn’t nonsense at all. One of the reasons you have to wait for chicken manure to “cool” to the point where it can used as fertiliser is because it also contains the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.
This toxin, which causes botulism, is one of the most dangerous known to science. It can cause paralysis to the muscles that control breathing, and without rapid treatment tends to be fatal in around 5-10% of cases.
The EU tells me that botulism in chicken manure “is extremely dangerous, even in small quantities and is very stable. If the litter is applied to pasture land the toxin will survive for some time and small quantities ingested by grazing animals can cause illness and even death.
“The large numbers of spores and bacteria present may cause further disease. Even if the litter is spread on the surface of non-pasture land, carrion feeders such as foxes and crows can move carcase remnants and toxin to adjoining pasture to affect grazing animals.
“Hence, it is recommended that chicken litter is applied to arable land and ploughed in immediately. If this is not possible, the litter should be stacked as far as possible from livestock and fenced off until it can be used.”
Thanks for that. And there was me, thinking that my free-range chickens and their 100% organic free-range eggs were right up in there in the “safe and natural” category of food labelling, if indeed I bothered with labels at all.
But then I remembered the story of how in 2011 organic cucumbers killed 31 people in Germany, making thousands more seriously ill, because of e Coli poisoning.
I don’t know how many people bother to read food labels which tell them of all the different chemicals they might be ingesting. But I’ve never seen an organic carrot labelled as dangerous, even though this must also be true.
Nothing is easy. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Off to clean the chicken shed, with new gloves.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

I'm a believer

In 1999 I made a television documentary about The Beast of Bodmin Moor. Armed with only a video camera, I spent two weeks in a tent, near Bolventor, in a very wet November, trying to find enough material to fill 30 minutes. I found lots of dead sheep, their carcasses picked clean, but no exotic large cats.

 Nevertheless, partly as a result of compelling, but inconclusive, video filmed on a china clay waste tip, by the time the programme went out I had become convinced that a very small number of big cats do indeed live wild in Britain.

The suggestion that Lynx might now be re-introduced into the wilder parts of Britain have provoked a fairly predictable reaction from local farming communities.
Natural England is continuing to consult with wildlife campaigners on the possibility that licences might be granted to bring back these creatures – typically 3-feet long and weighing about 30 lbs – which are thought to have disappeared from Britain about 1,500 years ago. Bringing back beavers to Devon is one thing – but big cats, which can easily bring down a sheep?
According to the Lynx Trust: “Across its range in Europe predation by Lynx of livestock up to the size of a sheep, depending on livestock numbers and accessibility, is relatively low and almost negligible. Scientific studies throughout Europe have shown sheep predation levels to be around 0.4 sheep per Lynx, per year….
“There are no documented cases of Lynx ever attacking a human without the situation involving a Lynx that was captive, wounded or rabid. Indeed, as lynx are extremely shy and elusive creatures, we anticipate that human-Lynx interactions will not occur or will be extremely rare.”
The motive for bringing back these animals, which Defra lists as “dangerous,” is to stimulate tourism. The Trust suggests that tourism businesses could contribute to a pot of money to be used to compensate farmers whose livestock had been savaged.
The Trust insists that rural communities in general, and the agricultural sector in particular, would benefit from the re-introduction of the Lynx: “Lynx are specialist roe deer hunters and European studies have shown that game birds make up a negligible proportion of a Lynx diet,” says the Trust’s report. “Lynx are also known to predate on foxes, so are likely to benefit game bird populations by limiting the number of foxes that would otherwise heavily predate such game species.”
I think the farmers’ protests might carry more weight if more of their livestock survived to reach the slaughterhouses. A 2013 report estimated that across Britain, about 2.5 million sheep perish on the moors, usually as a result of disease, exposure, starvation, or a combination of all three. That’s a lot of dead sheep, but still only a tiny percentage of the total. It is clearly not possible for the hard-pressed farmer to take the register every morning and evening.
My own feeling is that the big wild cats do not need to be re-introduced. They are already there.
The probable existence of the Beast of Bodmin Moor – who seems to have cousins in almost every rural part of Britain – even triggered a formal Ministry of Agriculture inquiry in 1995. Acknowledging that many big cats were likely to have been released into the wild in the 1970s, when it became illegal to keep them as domestic pets, the Whitehall study was inconclusive – leaving us to ponder how the thousands of sightings from credible eye-witnesses, and even half-a-dozen officially-documented cases of road-kill, could be based on something that doesn’t exist.