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Muckspreader December 20

The annus horribilis inflicted on Britain’s livestock farmers by bluetongue and Defra’s very own home-made foot-and-mouth shambles is ending with little cheer in sight. Having lost £500 million through the EU’s ban on lamb exports at just the time of year when exports to the continent normally reach their height, farmers In the south east are now are at their wits end, having to slaughter thousands more sheep which cannot be moved to western winter pastures, thanks to the insistence of Deftra and Brussels that bluetongue movement restrictions must remain. Defra refuses to divulge information as to whether the midges which carry the disease in summer have disappeared, treating it as a state secret.

Then the ‘Portuguese presidency’ of the EU has been pressured by Brussels officials into reviving the proposal that every sheep in the EU must be electronically tagged. This will strike a death-blow at much of what remains of Britain’s hill-farming. It is not physically possible to keep track of which sheep over hundreds of square miles of moorland may have lost their ear tags (even Defra a year or two back worked out that the cost of this scheme to farmers would be considerably greater than their yearly income). No country will suffer more from this ridiculous new law than Britain, with by far the largest number of sheep in the EU, many spending at least part of their time wandering the hills.

At least arable farmers have something to celebrate, with world grain prices doubling in the last six months, not least thanks to the EU’s insistence that, to save the planet, much of our cereal land will soon have to be given over to biofuels. But with world food stocks facing an unprecedented deficit, neither Defra nor Brussels seem to have given any thought to where in the future, if we are to meet that EU biofuels target, we are going to get our food from. Already the doubling of grain prices is threatening disaster to pig and poultry farmers, for whom feed is their major cost (hence those legendary £100 organic turkeys this Christmas).

So unrelieved is this picture of misery that one turns for relief to the latest twist in the battle between Robin Page, the farmer who runs the Countryside Restoration Trust, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Page’s latest target is the claptrap still being spouted by the RSPB over the alleged shooting in October of two hen harriers on the Royal estate at Sandringham, over which the local constabulary famously interviewed Prince Harry. The RSPB’s conservation director Mark Avery intones ‘we regard the killing of hen harriers as one of the most serious wildlife crime offences. We don’t want the deaths of these two harriers to be completely in vain’.

As Page points out, himself a passionate naturalist, there is not a shred of evidence to support the story peddled by the two anonymous ‘eyewitnesses’ who, with the aid of the RSPB, blew up the supposed deaths of the two allegedly rare hen harriers into a major scandal. Not a feather was found, although normally when a bird is shot, feathers fly. Expert naturalists all agree that hen harriers are invariably seen singly in the autumn, never in pairs. And far from being an ‘endangered species’, Britain’s hen harrier population of 750 pairs is ‘stable’ – despite the fact that, as their name implies, one of their chief delights is the harrying of other birds to provide them with dinner. Scrooge had the right word for the RSPB: ‘humbug’.