Loaded Dice - Scottish Sheep under Attack

 

John Thorley, Chief Executive, National Sheep Association

 

When we stand back and take an objective view of our sheep industry as we have it today we cannot help noticing our many critics - most of them it has to be said are either academics or else driven by love of academia, irrespective of whether this love is sensible or not. I have consulted the 1985 Collins' Concise Dictionary, and a variety of other highly reputable sources. Without going into any great detail on the subject I want you to know that I am entirely supportive of the academic who belongs to a place of learning or specialist training, one who is engaged in research, development and teaching which has a practical outlook. I have however very little respect for the academics who are excessively concerned, without understanding, with matters of an intellectual nature and impose their poorly thought out theoretical and abstract views on an industry which is essentially practical and concerned with reality and all which that entails. In short, just as some farmers bring farming into disrepute so some shallow thinking academics bring the academic world into disrepute. This minority, of both professions, help no-one.

 

I was reminded of the stultifying effect of theoretical academia by an article in the Sunday Times Business supplement a few weeks ago. One, Larry Ellison, Chief Executive of the US software giant'Oracle' was speaking at the Graduation Class of 2000 at Yale University. His comments are said to have sent his listeners scurrying for the valium and their therapists. The words which caused this reaction and I quote "Please take a good look around you. Look at the classmate on your left. Look at the classmate on your right. Now consider this: five years from now, ten years on, even 30 years from now, odds are that the person on your left is going to be a loser. The person on your right meanwhile, will also be a loser" he continued "and you in the middle? What can you expect? Loser. Loserhood. In fact as I look out before me today, I don't see a thousand hopes for a bright tomorrow. I don't see a thousand future leaders in a thousand industries. I see a thousand losers." Then with all the tact for which he is famous Ellison said "You're upset. That's understandable. After all how can I Lawrence "Larry" Ellison, college dropout, have the audacity to spout such heresy to the graduating class of one of the nation's most prestigious institutions. I'll tell you why. Because I, Lawrence Ellison, second richest man on the planet, am a college dropout, and you are not.

 

"Because Bill Gates, richest man on the planet - for now anyway - is a college dropout and you are not.

 

"Because Paul Allen, third richest man on the planet, dropped out of college and you did not. You didn't drop out so you will never be among the richest people in the world. I realise that many of you are wondering, is there anything I can do? Is there any hope for me at all? Actually, no. It's too late - you are a write-off, so I'll let you slink off to your pathetic $200,000 a year job where your cheques will be signed by former classmates who dropped out two years ago. His finale was described as magnificent "I want to give hope to any underclassman here today. I say to you, and I can't stress this enough: leave. Pack your things and your ideas and don't come back. Drop Out. Start up. For I can tell you that a cap and gown will keep you down just as surely as these security guards, dragging me off the stage, are keeping me down!" This last comment apparently was no exaggeration.

 

I am not asking you to agree with the content of that extraordinary article by Damien McCrystal because quite frankly I have some difficulty with it. However, it encapsulates, in a more graphic form than I had ever seen set out before the difference between a theoretical academic and a practitioner. The difference between a doer and a talker. The difference in our world between farmers, who, with their livestock and methods, have been part of our landscape for centuries, who have designed and built not only the farming systems and landscape which the academic conservationists now seek to conserve but which have also been the key element in establishing the rural communities, the rural infrastructure with its arts, craft and heritage, which are so beloved of the academics but whose academic interest and interference now threatens its very existence.

 

Hard words, certainly. They are intended to be. For soft words have not got us anywhere, soft words are looked upon as a sign of weakness and the fact that, as an industry, we have not had the courage of our convictions, have not had the temerity to stand up and argue with Dr this or Professor that, irrespective of whether they made sense or not, has seen us confine our once rich and vibrant heritage to the level where we are dictated to by people who have the appearance of theoretical competence but who have failed to grasp the simple fact that every action has a reaction, for every action there is a knock-on effect and in terms of the pebble in the pool the ripple effect goes on with the final ripple sometimes lifted by the breeze to have an effect far greater than initially expected.

 

Before I get misunderstood or misconstrued in any way let me say quite clearly that there are plenty of academics for whom I have the utmost respect but I have very little for the people who are highly qualified but who have left behind the ability to think outside the box and who fail to understand that there are limits to what can be done on a hill and upland farm, that every single farm is different, that the climate varies from year to year and any system put in place to produce has to be flexible enough to accommodate that dynamic.

 

So where are we today as a sheep industry in Scotland? Not only are we under fire from those who seek to control us and reduce our ability to function in an economic way, but there are those, even in our own farming fraternity, who believe there might be advantage in denigrating the humble sheep and putting forward the view that cattle will do a better job. Frankly, I find the prospect of one sector trying to score points off another as being abhorrent in the extreme and for this reason will not go down that road. Suffice to say that Scotland is famous for both its lamb and beef and that the consumers of England and Europe have benefited from its quality, produced in a way which is beneficial to the ecological and environmental ethic while creating income for a number of people and industries along the way.

 

Practicality dictates most things in a practical business such as livestock farming and there will be sense in running some of the traditional cattle breeds in some areas. In my opinion the sheep versus cattle debate is one which is best resolved by each farmer studying his own farm circumstances, working out his own system and probably coming to the conclusion that the present stocking position which has been brought about by previous studies or observations of what works best is probably not too far from being the most suitable. Even so it is worth noting that in European terms we are already producing more beef than we need whilst we are under supplied with lamb by about 20%.

 

This though is where the true impact of Mr Ellison's thoughts, who I quoted a few minutes ago, takes us. For there can be little doubt that from the time we started to rely on support, first from the National purse and then from the European coffers the way we carry out our farming, and that includes the stocking regime, has been influenced by the various people who provide the pennies.

 

Consider then the influence of the highly academically qualified people who are politically active, who are part of the third party interest machine and whose academic but seldom practical expertise covers welfare, environment, ecology, conservation and so on. Not that there is anything bad about these people, there isn't but and this is the important BUT, they are not a part of the commercial reality, they are from the academic side of the debate versus the practical and for this reason their input is much more akin to that of the graduates who Mr Ellison derides and a long way usually from the mindset of the practical farmer who is out there trying to keep his head above water in spite of the theoretical academics.

 

So what we have is the naturally entrepreneurial, practical farmer who has been lulled into a false sense of security for the past 50 odd years by subsidies and who is now faced with the fact that he is controlled or policed by people, who in the mind of Mr Ellison, could not have made a living in the real world by producing something tangible and beneficial but who now

have the upper hand. What a terrible dilemma.

The question is, does this pattern have a future and if it does, can our

sheep industry survive it? Two important questions which I will try to answer.

 

Frankly I don't think it can. We cannot survive the present pressure without some radical change. I say that simply because there will be no-one left to farm in our remote rural areas and in the wilder parts of Scotland unless a more understanding, creative and positive attitude is adopted by our controllers - we cannot go on as we are. This route has no future. Within the voluntary side of the third party interests a coalition of single subject organisations has been created entitled the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL). It covers 36 organisations with over 5.5 million UK supporters. Its members own, manage or lease over 3,500 sites in UK (around 430,000 hectares) three times the area of Greater London and roughly equal to the county of Sutherland in Scotland. More than 1,650 of these sites are Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Their members include The World Wildlife Fund (WWF); The Council for British Archaeology, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

 

Just to take one of these, possibly the largest, the RSPB has a declared income for the year ending 31st March 2000 of just under #50 million and claims a readership for its magazine'Birds' of around 2 million.

 

"The objects of the Society shall be

 

To conserve wild birds and the wider environment on which wild birds depend, maintaining bird numbers diversity and natural geographic distribution.

 

To conserve natural and semi-natural habitats and to create habitats.

 

To encourage others to practice the conservation of wild birds and habitats.

 

To promote knowledge of conservation through education and research.

 

From their very impressive web-site we get the information which says that "for thousands of years, large grazing animals - both wild and domesticated - have influenced the way our countryside looks and the wildlife found there. Without grazing, the open grassland, heath and moor-land habitats, characteristic of our countryside today, would over time convert back to scrub and woodland.

 

Much of the bio-diversity - the variety of plants, birds, mammals and insects - associated with these open habitats would be lost.

 

Many habitats and species are at their most diverse where low input, mixed livestock systems are dominant".

So far so good, they're on our side, we could have written their script ourselves. It goes on to say:

 

"Without cattle and sheep, management of reserves for birds such as the lapwing would be difficult if not impossible". But outside the nature reserves many farmland birds and it includes skylark, lapwing, curlew and black grouse are in trouble as a result of changes in farming practice encouraged by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Intensive, specialised livestock farming systems have replaced extensive, mixed farms over the past 25 years or more and contributed to the widespread decline of many birds and other species.

 

The list of birds include Grey Partridge, Turtle dove, Skylark, Songthrush, Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Reed Bunting, Corn Bunting, yellowhammer and of course the lapwing. There is then a list of causes of farmland bird reductions. I find it absolutely amazing and almost unbelievable that none of the issues listed includes predation by raptors and yet we are expected to believe that a massive, even burgeoning, growth of our birds of prey can take place without their having a very significant impact on the so-called farm birds - what rubbish. So why doesn't the RSPB say so?

 

I wonder whether this is a question of selective myopia by the bird people or do they really believe their own information to the extent that they close their eyes to what is really happening.

 

Do they not accept, for instance, that in making all hawks a protected species in 1954 (except Sparrow hawks which were included 10 years later) that this would not make a significant incursion on the populations of these smaller farm birds. It is acknowledged that Sparrow Hawks alone eat an average of three small birds per day which must equate to over 100 million per year by now.

 

Yet with all of this taking place the RSPB continues to persist in its view that the whole of the decline in bird numbers is down to farming systems. For this reason, if for no other, we have to question their thought processes; question what drives them and question their highly selective interpretation of facts which are well known to countrymen everywhere but which the RSPB, as protectors of some birds, appear to forget. We also need to question how much of this amnesia is a direct result of academic enthusiasm and questionable science interfacing with a lack of practical understanding. I draw attention to the entire scene simply to invite your understanding of how academic theory can interfere with practice.

 

My late, good friend, David Kerr, a former chairman of the Hill Farming Research Organisation waxed lyrical on many occasions when discussing the whole business of the control of protected species of birds and was extremely critical of the academics who talked glibly about the issue of overgrazing while ignoring entirely the gradual and incessant encroachment of bracken which still, apparently, increases its influence by some 3% per year. The point really being that bracken expansion reduces the land available for grazing or any other useful activity. A point ignored by the controllers when they are about their easy business of being critical of farmers. There is, of course, nothing new in any of this and yet the sad fact is that while the number of farmers has been reducing at an inexorable rate, the number of people who are able to influence our lives and who act as policemen of one sort or another on our industry are multiplying almost as fast as the raptors and probably have a similar effect on farmers as raptors have on bird life.

 

So what is the significance of this aspect of my talk? Simply this. The numbers of farmers in the whole of UK is just over 200,000. The size of the lobby effectively ranged against the industry is some 30 times more numerous. Quite frankly the whole business concerns me and I wonder whether it is too fanciful to question whether it is in the best interests of the country or even of democracy for these single interest bodies to have formed such a powerful coalition especially when one considers the people in very high places who play key roles in the way they operate, and are either a part of or else have direct access to the very heart of Government. Is this not a step too far, should it not even be questioned on constitutional grounds? Where are the politicians who have fair and independent minds and who are free of the shackles of being part of a huge national lobby. Is it any wonder that the ground rules have shifted in a quite dramatic way with a scarcely hidden antagonism to traditional farming. I wonder what is the real underlying agenda. Whatever happened to the scales of justice.

 

The concern of many in the sheep industry is that this has resulted in a very substantial and I believe unacceptable imbalance of lobby power with the well funded battalions in an over weaning position to influence Government and others to the quite serious detriment of the sheep industry. According to the 2001 Dod's Parliamentary Companion, the RSPB has no less a person than Elliot Morley, Parliamentary Under Secretary at DEFRA as a Council member; the same Dod's also describes him as President of the multifaceted Wildlife and Countryside Link, and a Council member for the British Trust for Ornithology. He holds a number of other posts connected to the environment and conservation lobby.

 

Again I regard him as a friend but cannot help thinking that by having Elliot as a direct link to the Government, especially the influential new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the environmentalists, particularly of the ornithological variety cannot help but have a very significant advantage over the sheep industry and indeed any other part of farming.

 

Then we have the new Chief Executive of the Environment Agency for England and Wales, Barbara Young -'Baroness Young of Old Scone'. The Environment Agency is charged with protecting and enhancing the environment as a whole, formerly Chief Executive of the RSPB from 1991-98, she was Chairman of English Nature from 1998 until she joined The Environment Agency last year. And what does she think of sheep - why so

much that in the hallowed halls of the House of Lords she described sheep as

woolly maggots. Having met both these people, Elliot Morley particularly,

on many occasions I can only say how reasonable and sensible they both are - but I cannot help thinking that we, in the entire agricultural lobby, are light years behind the environmentalists and conservationists, irrespective of the fact that what they are setting out to conserve is what we, in the farming fraternity, put there in the first place. Irrespective also of the fact that the reason there has been any environmental pressure on farmed land is the never ceasing clamour for cheap food from farms - which has resulted in fewer people working larger farms and not doing so in the preferred way due almost entirely to economic pressure. But the real question to ask when we look at the important positions held by these excellent people - could anyone conceive of a situation where a Minister in DEFRA or in the Scottish Executive could also be a Council member or even President of the NFU or the NSA or any other agricultural organisation. But given the precedents we now have, why not? The next hypothetical question would be - who could we have? For, to my knowledge, there are few as close to real agriculture as our two friends are to some parts of the environment and conservation world who are so well placed in Government.

 

So where are we with Scotland's sheep industry? The answer has to be a very long way from the cheap jibes of overgrazing and farming for subsidies. Like the unique Scottish verdict "not proven", neither has been proven and a view of the production graph actually indicates a reduction in sheep numbers in Scotland; and there are now significant areas which are either no longer stocked or where flock sizes have been reduced.

 

Of interest is the fact that the December Census figures show that in 1993 the breeding flock in Scotland was 3,583,000 the figure today shows a drop to a figure of 3,270,900. A reduction from 1999 of around 12%. The question is whether this reduction is positive or negative.

 

It would seem to me that the balance of what's right lies in maintaining numbers not too far different from where we were last year. Anyone who disagrees with that view should ponder on the fact that shortage of lamb supply on the world market is making the New Zealand lamb worth over #50.00 per head today. While it was only earning #10.00 per head last year. At the same time the French market is paying some 40-50% more for lamb this year than in 2000. It becomes clear therefore that just as the consumers of France and other EU countries, place a high value on lamb the Scottish sheep producing sector is extremely reliant on supplying this export market. A vitally important symbiosis.

 

The identified price lift demonstrates that consumers want our lamb, are prepared to pay for it - and substantially more than was being paid before the FMD crisis.

 

So bearing in mind this quite clear vote of confidence for good quality lamb and that there is a market for a wide variety of types, should we perhaps look at the other side of the benefits?

 

First of all there is the Golden Hoof. For centuries known as the way to put natural fertility into soil which can then be cropped to reap the benefit. There is also the practice of pasture improvement by running sheep to graze behind the cattle or horses. Those, I have no doubt you will have thought of.

 

But what about dead sheep providing food for birds of prey, like the Golden Eagle and the buzzard?

 

What would happen to the small delicate plant communities which depend on sheep to keep back scrub and tree growth? What would happen to the birds, like the lapwing and skylark which thrive on the well grazed hills and uplands of Scotland - or to the grouse chicks which thrive upon the bugs that live in the sheep droppings in between the heather? What insects would be drawn to the natural fertiliser from river and stream banks all the way up to the highest hills in the country?

 

In short, what changes would be brought about by removing Scotland's breeding ewes to leave a landscape denuded of its ovines. Would their removal be negative or positive when one considers that the 85% of Scottish sheep which are found in the Less Favoured Areas are vital to its all important conservation - even more important, how sensible would it be to remove sheep from the 12% of the country designated SSSI to preserve the status quo? There is no doubt in my mind that it would be nothing short of catastrophic.

 

Then there is the important matter of sheep grazing the cliffs on the Shetland Isles, preparing the grass for the ground nesting seabirds - without this the birds could not breed. Where would that place our bird people - but they are of course, let's never forget, supportive of grazing! But the real answer to the question what would happen to Scotland if it lost its sheep is very straight forward. Nobody knows. For the research has never been done. What is worse is that what little research has been done has been ignored to make way for the main message. The deep worry among those of us who care about sheep and the entire natural habitat balance is that just as some very influential sectors of the environment lobby ignore the predating habits of raptors on small birds, they also ignore the beneficial effects of sheep and take some sort of cynical pleasure in emphasising what little negative effects they have.

 

 

To conclude, I believe we should never underestimate the importance of sheep in any part of the country - not in the lowlands, nor in the highlands. Nor should we ignore their influence in the remote and isolated areas. Sheep were mans first domesticated animal, they are therefore a fundamental part of everything we seek to conserve.

 

Let this then be a warning to all those third party interests and shallow thinking academics who denigrate our sheep and our systems of keeping them. Weaken or at worse do away with sheep and you weaken the environment and remove the very foundation of the rural social structure.

No sheep, no people, no rural economy.

 

 

 

 

Ends

 

John Thorley

National Sheep Association

12th October 2001