(From East Anglian Daily Times Sept 6 2008)
The Importance of Grassland in Suffolk
By Caroline Cranbrook
(Vice-President Suffolk CLA & Chairman, Eastern Region Grazing Forum)
Grassland in Suffolk is a valuable, increasingly rare and endangered resource, as are the animals which graze it. Until the 1960s, most farms kept livestock, while much unproductive land, such as the heathland, was also grazed. Today, cattle and sheep in Suffolk are mainly confined to the river valleys, parks, wildlife reserves and a few isolated patches of grassland in the clay uplands. The livestock industry is very fragmented but its importance far outweighs the relatively small numbers of animals involved.
Grazing animals are vital to the landscape and to biodiversity. Most of the countryside we value in East Anglia, the meadows, heaths, marshland and saltings, are maintained through grazing. Without them, these habitats would degenerate into unkempt, tangles of thistles, nettles, brambles and ragwort or would revert to arable cultivation. This is why environmental organisations, such as the RSPB and Suffolk Wildlife Trust, need their land to be grazed.
Livestock are important to tourism. Visitors to our county do not come to see our productive arable fields but to enjoy the landscape of the coast, heaths and river valleys – and the meat of the animals that graze there. The grazed landscape is one of Suffolk’s greatest assets, underpinning the county’s £1.2 billion tourism industry.
Grazing animals are also essential to our successful local food chain. Butchers, farm shops, farmers markets, village shops, pubs, hotels and restaurants, all need regular supplies of locally produced meat to satisfy the increasing demand. Short distances from field to plate are important for animal welfare and meat quality. Rising transport costs are another significant factor and for this reason I am sure we will soon become much more dependent on the availability of locally food of all kinds.
Our Suffolk meat industry is flourishing but ironically its existence is seriously threatened by lack of confidence in the future viability of cattle and sheep farming. The underlying reasons for this are the burden of regulation, the effects of bluetongue and other diseases and escalating costs of animal feed. The Rare Breed Survival Trust recently surveyed 288 livestock keepers about their future plans. The results were depressing: 13% intended to give up their livestock in 2008 and 43% during the next three years. The main reasons were bureaucratic, regulations, particularly the new animal transport rules, double-tagging of sheep and animal disease.
Over-regulation affects us all and farming is no exception. So many of the new rules are time-consuming, costly and seem to be devised by people who know little of the realities of farming in Great Britain. For instance, the proposed requirement for sheep to be double-tagged electronically is not only very expensive but also impractical. Other very worrying regulations relate to the storage of farmyard manure in nitrate vulnerable zones, to animal transport and to fallen stock, most of which have to travel many miles beyond Suffolk for disposal. Rising costs of meat hygiene inspections are also another worry.
The cumulative impact of what appears to be never-ending regulation and inefficient micro-management will have devastating consequences for the whole livestock industry, but particularly for the fragile local meat producers in East Anglia. The CLA and NFU lobby hard in Westminster and in Brussels but it is an uphill struggle.
The other immediate threat remains Bluetongue (BTV8) and it is essential that we do not drop our guard against this terrible disease. Defra’s vaccination programme has worked well but the threat has not gone away. It is vital that calves born this autumn are vaccinated when they are one month old. In August 2008, the virus has appeared in Denmark and in Switzerland. France has already had 8167 new cases (compared to 15,569 cases in 2007).
We must control animal diseases much more efficiently and cost-effectively if our livestock industry is to survive. Climate change and international travel will result in other serious diseases being introduced, particularly those carried by insects. We must be better prepared to deal with them.
One solution is to remove animal health and welfare from the political arena - and to apply regulations GB-wide, since disease does not recognise national boundaries. The lack of any effective policy to control the spread of bovine TB is largely due to political influence. The CLA economist, Professor Allan Buckwell, has suggested that a workable solution would be to create a new, independent, non-ministerial, non-departmental agency to deal with decision-making and policy implementation for all issues of animal health and welfare. It would obviously have to have the confidence of the industry and the public, with a 50:50 industry/government balance on the board.
Livestock farmers also need to play their part and work together more, sharing information, skills, services and costs. In order to help bring this about, Natural England has started a Grazing Forum for the Eastern Region. Members include the CLA, NFU, National Trust, RSPB, Suffolk Smallholders, the Wildlife Trusts and individual farmers. The Forum is unique in that it can represent all organisations with interests in grassland, whether these are commercial, environmental or those of hobby farmers. As a first step the Forum is starting a website called Grazing Exchange in association with the Sheepkeep website. This will help match up livestock and grazing requirements throughout the region. In addition, Anglia Farmers are holding an important conference, Sustainability of Ruminant Farming in East Anglia, at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk on 29th October.
Livestock grazing faces huge challenges in the months and years ahead. In the meantime, we need to celebrate our region’s unique resource – our beautiful landscape, the animals which maintain it and the wonderful meat they produce. These themes are also central to the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival (19-28 September), which has a strong focus on livestock, landscape and meat. One example is the Amazing Grazing art exhibition at White House Farm Great Glemham (19 September - 4 October).This features paintings of the Alde valley and its livestock, Alde Valley crafts and includes farm walks – plus a feast of Alde Valley meat on the evening of the 20th September.
If livestock farming is to survive, government must lobby much harder in Europe to ensure that regulation is appropriate, proportionate, sensible – and affordable. Government must also allow the industry to take much more responsibility and control of animal disease and welfare. Farmers must be prepared to work together more and also publicise the connection between the meat people eat and the landscape that produced it. Above all, consumers, you and I, must do our bit, whether we are shopping in the supermarket, at the butcher or farmshop or eating out at the pub or hotel – Just Ask where the meat comes from and whether it is locally produced and slaughtered. If we do not support our livestock farmers now, we will no longer have a local meat industry and we will lose both the livestock and the landscape.
Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival 19-28 September
Amazing Grazing in the Alde Valley 19 September – 4 October www.foodadventures.co.uk
East Anglian Grazing Conference 29 October
See also the published report "A study of the economic, environmental and social impacts of a loss of grazing livestock in the East of England" pdf file (2.5 mb) new window
(To encourage farmers in the sharing of information, skills, services and costs, Natural England has started a Grazing Forum for the Eastern Region)