Thursday, August 25, 2005

Column, July 26, 2005

UNTIL now the travails of the country landowner are not something that have furrowed my brow unduly.
Having lived in a flat where the sum total of the acreage under my control amounted to one balcony; followed by a Victorian terrace where, were I cruel enough to swing a cat, it would have bashed it head against the four walls of a tiny back yard – I have been untroubled by the onerous duties that rest on the shoulders of the landowner.
But then I moved house. Now I have gardens, or, as I like to refer to them when getting ideas way, way above my station, grounds.
Hedgerows, a rose garden, stone walls, lawns, and even a small woodland comprise Banks acres. I can now order someone off my land and it will involve a longer walk than them stepping out of the front door.
Since acquiring the spread I have come over all bucolic and it can only be a matter of time before the Country Landowners Association come a-calling offering me honorary membership, or even life presidency.
Our nearest neighbour is a farmer, we’re surrounded by fields, and our two-year-old having spent his summer in the great outdoors, has acquired the bronze perma-tan of a horny-handed son of the soil rather than a pasty-faced son of a hack.
I was half-wondering whether I could set aside the front lawn and claim EU subsidy for it and is a tractor really out of the question as a second car?
My agricultural credentials duly established I feel I can hold forth with farmers on an equal footing. While my fortunes are not so wedded to the vagaries of oil seed rape prices as are theirs, nevertheless I feel their pain.
So it was that conversation on Saturday fell, as it does when you’re a custodian or our rural heritage, to the subject of hedgerows and when to cut them.
I was feeling rather proud to have neatly-trimmed my rambling row, but my farming acquaintance revealed that he could not tackle his until the end of the summer.
This wasn’t because other farming duties took precedence, but it was because of something called cross compliance.
I can see your eyes glazing over, and so were mine, you’re thinking here’s another whinging farmer aren’t you? And you wouldn’t be wrong, but he was whinging with good reason. Furthermore he drove a modest Ford Mondeo, not a large, new Volvo.
Here’s how it works. To get his full subsidy he must comply with certain environmental regulations – and hedgerow cutting is one of them. No cutting between March 15 and August 31 in Wales, March 1 to July 31 in England.
This is to allow birds to nest, breed and for the young to fly the nest.
This all seems to make perfect sense if you’re a bird lover and who can argue against such a regulation, even if it means untidy hedges?
Well, my new farming mate could give you one or two things to think about.
For a start the dates apply from the southernmost tip of the UK to the northernmost. You’re not telling me that birds in the balmy southern climes of Kent nest and breed at exactly the same dates as those on the Llyn, or in Northumberland are you?
Secondly, my new-found friend said that a hedge cut now produced a dense, thick hedge which was accessible to small hedge-nesting birds, but was impenetrable to predators such as magpies. By leaving the cutting until later, the hedge was loose and so the magpies can get in and kill the very birds that the rules are trying to protect.
Thirdly, by the end of the summer the thorns on hedges like hawthorn have hardened, and so when they’re cut they get into the hooves of livestock causing suffering to them, which they wouldn’t if they were cut earlier when the thorns are still soft.
All of this is as a result of well-intentioned rules being imposed on a on-size fits all basis. We all know that the climate of North Wales is different from that of the South East of England and yet the rules are being applied across the board instead of allowing for some local leeway.
This is just a small example of the sort of bureaucracy that farmers have to cope with now when dealing with the minefield that is subsidy.
Of course, you might argue that they shouldn’t be getting subsidy in the first place, but without subsidy we’d be paying more for our food, so take your pick.
Some cynics might argue that if farmers were allowed a free hand there wouldn’t be a bird left and every hedgerow in sight would have been grubbed up in the name of profit.
But if you’re going to have rules, surely it’s better to have rules that make sense and work rather than ones which endanger the very species you’re trying to protect.

I’M not surprised parents on Anglesey are less than thrilled at the council’s latest cost-cutting wheeze.
Making parents stump up £60 to pay for the school bus fares must have seemed a stroke of genius to whoever it is that counts beans at the council, but if you’re the one who foots the bill you might not be as impressed by a display of penny-pinching that would make Scrooge blush.
Imagine if you’ve got three kids of school age – that’s £180 that you’re expected to find in one go.
As father-of-two Eddie Gardner not unreasonable asks, why can’t the kids still pay on a day-by-day basis, even if the fares go up?
The council spokesman, while neatly passing the buck to the Assembly, does not explain why they want the cash in one, difficult to find, lump sum, rather than allowing children to pay the fares on a daily basis.
Surely they knew this would create hardship, or are they so out of touch with their own electorate that they imagine a family with three kids has £180 lying around doing nothing in particular?
Bringing up kids is expensive enough without ill-thought-out policies like this one making life even harder.
The end result of this will be children walking to school because their parents simply can’t afford to fund Anglesey’s ham-fisted attempt to cut costs.
And when a child gets knocked down walking on an unsafe route to school, where will those who made this decision be then?
My best guess is: Nowhere to be seen.
The council should reconsider this decision immediately and allow parents to pay fares on a daily basis.

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