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September 2000

[Week 39 · Sept. 25th - Oct. 1st - 2000]

SANDWICH BLUES

Believe it or not - and it does sound quite incredible - the source of the recent swine fever outbreak has been potentially traced to a discarded sandwich. A government scientist believes that the strain of the disease could only have entered the pig herd through consumption of an illegally imported processed meat product, and that the first infected pig possibly ate a sandwich discarded by someone walking on a footpath alongside part of the pig unit.

What must worry farmers is that when the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill becomes law there will be increased risk of such disasters happening again. If we are to have open rights of way then it is essential to educate and enlighten the public about their impact on the countryside and their responsibilities to those who earn their living from the countryside - even making an extended Country Code part of the national curriculum perhaps, so that future generations are brought up to think about their actions.

On Tuesday The Times ran a small article about the café on the summit of Snowdon - a little corner of Britain far from most people's everyday thoughts.

The café is the remnant of a bygone age - 1936 to be precise. It was built as a hotel to service passengers who used the Snowdon Moutian Railway but its designers clearly had no sympathy with beautiful countryside around them. Instead, the dishevelled, flat-roofed, concrete edifice looks more like a bunker; hardly a joy to welcome the hundreds of thousands of tourists who reach Snowdon's summit each year and expect to find decent facilities to rest their weary legs.

The café, which has earned itself the reputation of being the 'highest rubbish dump in England and Wales' - at least in the eyes of the Prince of Wales - is now in the sights of various caretaker authorities which look after Snowdon and its surrounding National Park, and the hunt is on for funding to replace the café with a sensitively designed £6.5m visitor centre. However, there are already rumblings among conservationists that the mountain summit should have no buildings on it at all. One to watch.


[Week 38 · September 18th - 24th - 2000]

AFTERMATH

Political party manoeuvring after the petrol crisis flavoured the week; Michael Portillo declaring that if the Conservatives win the next election they will cut diesel and petrol costs by 3p per litre, while Chanecellor Gordon Brown remained insistant that government policy would not be changed by the protests. Panic petrol buying set in again on the Tuesday after rumours circulated that another oil refinery blockade was about to take place.

On Wednesday the GM debate took another turn as Lord Melchett [the Greenpeace executive director], and a band of fellow protestors were acquitted of causing criminal damage to a genetically modified crop at a Norfolk farm in July 1999.

Initially the group had been charged with theft, as the protestors had bagged up the destroyed GM maize for removal from the site because they felt it would contaminate the site. The original jury acquitted them of this, and National Farmers' Union president, Ben Gill, was apparently very unhappy at the outcome as this has a direct implication on whether farmers can go about their everyday business without people vandalising their crops and trespassing upon their land. A perfectly fair point.

Other items...
Planning permission for a second wood-burning power station, in Suffolk, has been given the green light. The station will begin operating in 2002 and burn coppice willow grown on some four and a half thousand acres.

Pig farmers in north Essex were given the green light to transport pigs to and from their farms following the swine fever outbreak; the infected area being declared clear of the disease.


[Week 37 · September 11th - 17th - 2000]

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS

When we posted last week's news round-up the fuel blockade in Cheshire appeared to be nothing more than a mere protestors' blip. History changed that, and the last week's events will go down in the books as the week that decent, hardworking taxpayers [backed by about 70-80% of the general population if straw polls are to be believed] threw a wobbly and sent one of the loudest protesting messages to a government in recent memory.

The government may well try to point the finger of blame at other parties, but the bottom line is that policy and politicians have done little to aid the haulage industry and farmers; both suffering from high fuel prices which they are not always able to pass onwards. The fuel shortages have meant that some farmers still have unharvested wheat and similar crops which are deteriorating in the field, and other have not been able to move harvested crops to processors.

The kind of competition that hauliers faced is exemplified by a report in The Independent on Sunday [Sept. 17th] which quoted a notorious East German haulage company, with bases all over Europe, as paying its drivers less than £170/wk compared to a UK driver's weekly salary of about £500. After a week or ten days working in the UK these trucks disappear back to France or Belgium to refuel with cheaper fuel in readiness for another working stint in Britain. The UK gains no revenue or tax out of these drivers who, rather, have the potential to put UK drivers out of business and therefore add to the nation's benefits and social security bill.

The other major shake-up of rural things this week came from the heartland of Warwickshire. After 30 years of commercial farming one of Britain's most prestigious, high profile organisations announced that it is getting out of farming on its own account. Formed in 1840, RASE - the Royal Agricultural Society of England - is to stop farming about one thousand acres of land at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire to concentrate its future energies on education, agricultural and rural economy policy matters, and technology transfer. Whether it's own 600+ acres in Warwickshire are to be sold off or to be put out to tenancy is yet to be decided, but the ultimate aim is to release value in the land to fund other work.

Other news...
It looks as if the MLC and meat industry representatives have come to an amicable agreement with the MoD about the amount of British meat served to the members of our armed forces....There is to be some more cash for English hill famers under the Hill Farm Allowance scheme, although agriculture minister Nick Brown still wants to change subsidy payments in this sector from 'production' to 'area' payments.

  [Week 36 · September 4th - 10th - 2000]

MANNING THE BARRICADES

This last week British farmers and hauliers took a leaf from the book of their French counterparts, taking direct action to protest at the price of fuel; blocking Shell's Stanlow refinery near Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. While British motorists can be expected to pay around 80p plus per litre, the Spanish pay less than 50p. Fuel tax here averages 75%, but averages less than 60% in Europe. Perhaps miltant elements of the EU have something to teach us after all?

For British citizens who really do need private transport to get to work and carry out their business - particularly those in rural areas where there is rarely a public transport alternative - the high price of fuel equates to lack of competitiveness, job losses, and restrictions on freedom of movement.

In a further twist to the fuel debate the much respected Professor Garel Rhys
- a world authority on the motor industry - has suggested that one outcome of current UK transport policy is that it could force people to abandon private motoring for public transport in ten years time. This is particularly bad news for rural populations which are not only being crippled by high fuel prices, but do not have a good public transport infrastructure, as mentioned. In a comparison with the old Soviet Union regime, the Professor apparently drew attention to the fact that restricting car output and usage under that totalitarian regime was a means of controlling people's movement and mobility.

On Monday 4th September the Liberal Democrats launched 'Roots to Recovery', a discussion document in which they called upon the government to protect smaller farmers by changing the way in which particular future flat-rate subsidy payments are paid; suggesting a scaled, tiered system that would better protect small farmers.

Interestingly the Lib Dems have also suggested a scheme which links early retirement - for those older farmers who want it - with one which attracts young blood into the industry.

The next day the Tories, were laying out their agricultural policy stall in preparation for next year's election. The Conservatives believe they have a more sympathetic understanding of the agricultural community and farming. Among their plans for action are dealing with the French beef ban and improving fool labelling.

Other items...
The Women's Institute is to run a fortnight campaign from September 11th - 24th to support farmers and farm-produce. Many WI groups are based in rural constituencies and its members know only too well the effects of the current agricultural economic climate.


[Week 35 · August 28th - Sept. 3rd - 2000]

DERISION AT COMPENSATION

Having waited for several weeks for news of what compensation would be available, farm minister Nick Brown announced this week that pig farmers would be eligible for £35 per slaughtered pig over 60kg weight, and a flat fee of £10 for smaller animals. There is, in fact, no legislative requirement for the government to compensate any of the pig farmers involved in the current swine fever outbreak but, given that the Treasury is awash with funds, it would be churlish for them not to step in. However, the offer of £35 per pig has been greeted with less than open arms, given that estimates put the cost of rearing a pig in the region of £100.

Some industry observers have commented that out of desperation a few farmers who have been unable to move their pigs may try to smuggle livestock out of the surveillance zone and thereby risk spreading the disease if any of the pigs do carry the disease. What is quite baffling is that the government has not sought full help from the EU which, apparently, would have been prepared to support compensation based on the market value of the pigs. In the Netherlands a similar outbreak in 1997 was met with full compensation payments to farmers. Officials of the NPA [National Pig Association] are calling for higher compensation.

The other major item rural item to feature this last week was new research on BSE which suggested that the disease could jump species to chickens, lambs and pigs and remain 'invisible' or symptomless, and then be passed on to humans. At least that was what sections of the media would have us believe. Scientists have been angered at the way in which the research has been sensationalised and have tried to put the research into a more rational context that won't cause public panic. As it turns out the disease had to be 'pushed' to infect animals in the laboratory and did not 'jump' - pigs had to have their brains injected with the disease, and poultry couldn't be infected.


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