I stopped the car quite suddenly and checked the mirror. The was no traffic coming in either direction; it was still pretty early. The farmland spread out all around me, gleaming brand new in the semi-frost. The top of Ffair Rhos, high at the start of the Cambrian Mountains, is a place where the usual order of mirror-signal-manoeuvre can be a little relaxed. I’d seen some sort of disturbance by the side of the road about 50 yards back. As I looked over my shoulder, I could see something moving about slowly near the fence. I reversed the car until I came up along side what it was.
A brown, leashed creature I initially took to be a dog, sat just in the field on the other side of the wire fence. It was sat in what looked like the crater of a small explosion. As it blinked mud from its eyes, I saw that its coat wasn’t brown; it was covered entirely in the mud it was sat in. It was one of those moments where you seem to swell with excitement and simultaneously sink with dread. As I watched, the badger suddenly rose onto its powerful hind legs and yanked back hard at the snare around its neck. The whole fence shook violently and the badger flipped on to her back.
More new soil was cascading down the bank and on to the road as I ran over. The badger pulled instinctively away as I drew closer, causing the fence to rattle and shake further and the wire around her neck to tighten. I felt the anger at my throat as I looked at the homemade snare deliberately fixed to the lowest section of wire fence. It was sickening. I began trying to undo the wire from the tiny tin locking plate. Each time I made any promising progress the badger would suddenly pull, tightening the lock plate again and twice slicing into my fingers. Once she moved towards my hands with her powerful front claws, snapping her jaws close to my fingers, so that I had to quickly withdraw them.
After 20 minutes or so I had eventually succeeded in releasing the locking plate. She sat for a moment. Then as she turned she realised she met no resistence from the wire. One second later, she was away.
I pushed my cold, sore hands deep into my pockets and watched the badger loping up the field. The snare still derailed from her neck. A flock of sheep glanced at her, then went back to their moronic, interminable grazing. It was incredible to see the badger beside the sheep. Despite her handicap, she looked fluid and natural; at once part of her surrondings. No longer showing any sign of panic, she used the shadow of the stone wall to disappear into a thicket of spring bramble. The sheep in contrast seemed extraordinaryily alien to the landscape, resourceless and seemingly without wit. I thought about the snare still around the badger’s neck.
“Fifty, fifty,” I muttered aloud, even though I knew her chances were slimmer than that.
I walked back to the car.
year, the EU pays out €50billion in farming subsidies for struggling European farmers. Of this, the UK’s farmers take a €3.5billion share. Very generous, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, there is a problem: much of this fund never reaches it’s targeted ‘struggling’ farmers, and instead ends up in the wealthy bank accounts of the UK’s largest landowners. The benefit cheats of European agriculture.
The data from England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland shows that 889 landowners received more than £250,000. Of those, 133 were given more than £500,000 and 47 of those were given more than £1m in subsidy.
Officials in Scotland and Wales said they would consider a cap, while Northern Ireland has endorsed a cap of £100,000. But the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for England is against the proposal.
The EU last week tried to impose a cap of £250,000 per farm. Under pressure from the British government, the legislation was diluted to allowing individual countries to choose to cap or not. Our government has chosen not to cap.
The average hill farmer in Wales, a tough way of life that has not transferred well into the 21st century, takes subsidies of about £53,000 a year. Yet, their farms averagely only generate about £33,000. In other words, without subsidies the farm would be starting -£20,000 every year.
Hill farming has existed for centuries in Wales, eking out a living in the harshest of terrains (about 80% of Welsh farmland is deemed a ‘less favoured area’). This strife has formed part of the historical heritage and culture of the country and the psychology of its people. However, with the EU subsidies now being gradually turned off, can we expect to see farms beat a slow retreat from the hills?
There is a distinction to be made between farmland and countryside. Somewhere along the way the two have become to the pubic, interchangeable. Countryside is a interconnected variety of natural environments; rivers, woods, meadows, bogs, etc. Farmland (when you say it often enough it even begins to sound manufactured and superficial… Disneyland… Neverland…) is simply a collection of businesses.
Despite productivity increasing by about 25% since the early 1970s, there has been, particularly in the last two decades, a gradual inability for UK farms to turn that increase into profit. The reason for this is a complicated mesh, spun from EU legislation and a far too cosy relationship between the National Farmers Union (NFU) and Dept for Food, Resources and Agriculture (Defra). This is not a recent development. The relationship has been too ‘close’ since the end of WWII. As George Monbiot points out in a recent Guardian article, the two head offices of both institutions sit perfectly adjacent to each other in their London Square.
Hill farming’s reward for remaining extant through the hard times is to be forced into the modern day image of today’s farming life. Little is discussed about the over grazing of the hills, the lack of trees or anything the sheep will graze, the fall in ecological diversity of these places. Instead emphasis is placed on the cultural traditions and histories associated with hill farming. Appealing, through news items or media images, to the difficult and hardy nature of the occupation. Obviously, snared animals don’t make good press.
In time, as the subsidies disappear, farm survival may rely on strong community ties which can lead to sales, maintenance and other local connections. These relationships will be difficult to maintain if the local community and the farmers are living in different centuries. All of our indiginous species of life need to be carefully protected and understood. This needs to come from the farmland, not despite of it. A mind shift is required by farmers and community, so that both parties can become flexible to change. It would be wonderful to see these changes debated at a local level and involve as many community voices as possible before implementing. The areas vacated by farming may need to be used for more ecological purposes. Communities all over Wales and the UK are working with land owners to create areas for people to enjoy, whilst increasing the ecological diversity of the barren places.
Rewilding is a genuine chance to make dramatic change to the high hills and other former remote grazing areas. It is a theory of standing back and letting the earth recover itself by its own processes; restoring the ecology of the land and creating new woods, trees, and anything else that is there to grow. In time new habitat will evolve, enticing new creatures into the area. Species such a beaver, boar, or even the euroasian lynx can be carefully reintroduced. This will add yet more diversity as ‘keystone’ species such as the beaver provide the habitat for many other species through there natuarl behaviours.
At the very least, it would mean that the persecution of some native birds and beasts by farmers would begin to dissist. It could mean an end to the sort of scene I encountered on the road last week. It could mean a return to nature in the Farmlands – something that has been absent from these large fenced ‘lawns’ for all too long.
As with many other things, taking the money out of the countryside could return it to us healthier, more interesting and self regulating. It would be a chance for us to truly embrace our own lands, and to allow that reality time to enhance us as people.