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I thought this might amuse you. Can you remember when I was having the dickens of a job finding out whether I could send my organic beef and lamb to my son and family in France?

I was sent spinning around every conceivable agency and organisation, embassy and Government department, both English and French; not one, it appeared, had the faintest clue as to any rules or regulations governing the export of meat from the UK to France.

Eventually I was told to contact Eblex (in England) by the French Department of Agriculture (in France). My luck changed as I was recommended to one importantly busy Jean-Pierre Garnier, the font of all knowledge surrounding matters such as the import of meat to the EU from the UK.  Jean-Pierre, jetting to Dubai (he’s very, very busy), was unable to speak to me personally, but his delightful PA contacted him mid-air and within minutes confirmed what she had thought to be the case. You do nothing. That’s right. Nothing. I was given the green light to stuff my case, pockets, shoes and bag with squishy lumps of meat. Or, of course, which was my preferred option, to send over my usual insulated, vac-packed and labelled boxes of the stuff.
“So it’s nothing, then? Rien?” I was slightly sceptical…

The piece I subsequently wrote was picked up and published in the Countryman magazine. Sam, a sheep farmer in the South East, mailed me. He thought it was a bit ironical considering.

“Considering what?”

“Considering the notice Johann Tasker saw a few weeks back.” (Johann Tasker is an editor on the Farmers’ Weekly)

“What notice?”

“The one at Paris Orly Airport.” Sam very kindly forwarded me a photo of said notice.

I was gob-smacked. Truly, yes. My jaw fell open, hit my boots and stayed there.

I just had to get hold of Johann to see if he would mind if I showed it to you. He said “Go ahead” (nice man) “though it’s not tip-top as it was taken on my phone.”

So here it is. Squint a bit, improvise. But you’ll get the gist. A Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) warning notice, prohibiting the import of any meat or dairy products into France from the UK.  And, please, do tell me what you think is going on…!

the notice at Paris Orley Airport taken a few weeks ago by Johann Tasker

the notice at Paris Orly Airport taken a few weeks ago by Johann Tasker

“Oh and one more thing. Do you have any information about sending organic meat to France?”

I was on the phone to the Soil Association (SA).

“No, it’s definitely dead.” I said “Yes, and butchered. The same I supply to customers in the UK. You know vac-packed, labelled, insulated boxes, ice packs, pretty paper, recipes…”

I listened.

“It’s not a great quantity. No. It’s for my son. Yes, he lives in France and he, his future wife and family want my meat.”

Ben and Berengere had asked if it was possible to send my beef and lamb down to them in Marseille.  As I was talking to the SA anyway I thought it  as good a place as any to start my enquiries.

But unfortunately they had no information on exporting organic meats, only importing. DEFRA, she thought, should be my next port of call.

I called DEFRA.  If I want information about FMD/Bluetongue: press 1. Avian flu: press 2. The whole farm approach: press 3. Helpline: press 4. I pressed… another list of options and choices – yes, helpline again: press 9.

A very helpful and efficient person answered. No, they didn’t have any information on the export of organic meat but they could give me the number of the department that did.

Animal Health – yup, if I called them they would have all the answers. I was given the local phone number and a call reference number too. Excellent, I thought.

I phoned Animal Health. Heavens no, they didn’t have any information about exporting meat to France. Yes, they used to but it had all be centralised. Did DEFRA really say they could help? Well, how out of date were they?

I was directed to call the centralised Animal Health Export Centre in Carlisle where they could definitely help me.

I called. Those options again…cats, dogs and ferrets to the EU. Cats, dogs and ferrets not to the EU. Livestock and germplasm (germplasm?). Live animals, dead animals, other animals, meat and dairy…that was it. I pressed.

“I wondered if you could help me with necessary licences and/or regulations needed for the export of a small quantity of organic beef and lamb to my son in France.”

“No, sorry, we don’t deal with exports of meat to the European Union. We only negotiate with third world countries. Actually, in reality, we work with the world. All of it. “

“France? It’s in the world.” I squeak

“No, we have nothing to do with the European Community. You need to talk to the French Embassy.”

“The French Embassy?” I’m amazed.

“Yes, google it.”

“Okaay. Google it?”

“Yes.”  She softened and giggled, warming in quite a conspirital way “Actually I go to France quite a bit for my holidays. You can find out all sorts of things from the Embassy site, about where to stay, what to eat and how to drive there. Really good maps and advice too.”

“As well as the export of meat?” I try to bring her back to the point in question.

“Oh yes, I should think so.” She replied, crisp and business like again “It’s them, after all, who look after their borders.”

I said a small thank you and did a search for the French Embassy. Loaded the English version and dialled the helpline number.

The options were spoken in French, which is much prettier, so I listened again, then again, and again…eventually someone picked up – they must have a signal for ‘imbecile-on-line’.

She spoke in French. I asked her politely if she wouldn’t mind talking to me in English as I wasn’t too sure of the correct way to ask about exporting meat. With a very French ‘Pooffe’ and a Gallic shrug reverberating down the phone, she replied in perfect English.

“Export of meat? You’re asking me?”

“Well yes, I was told you may be able to help?”

“No, this is London.” She replied with icy clarity “London.  You need the French Department of Agriculture. Possibly the science department.”

“Oh. Could you put me through to them please?”

Without any hesitation the phone was ringing again. Another list of fast spoken options, in French. Ah, but wait…if I didn’t understand, it said in English, hold and I would be answered! A very proficient woman answered and changed to English immediately she heard my voice.

I repeated my question.

“Why are you asking me?”

I gave her a potted history of the last two hours.

“How extraordinary” she said “You don’t need us. I can’t believe this. Someone in your country must know!”

I nodded franticly on the phone. “Yes. Yes. I agree. Completely.”

“Well, it’s very obvious. You need to contact the MLC or Eblex. In England!” she says…from France.

“Oh, that’s great. I’m a member of Eblex. Thank you. Thank you so much.” I gabble.

“No problem. They, of course, will know…and good luck.” she threw at me from across the Channel.

I phoned Eblex (in England). A lovely lady answered. I’d come through to the wrong department. But that was okay. She knew exactly the man I needed, one Jean-Pierre Garnier. She would give me his number, but as he’s very, very busy she’d also give me his email. Any problems I was to get back to her and she’d find someone else to help.

I phoned the number. Jean-Pierre’s PA answered. I asked my question.  Jean-Pierre was in Dubai, she said, he’s very, very busy. But she’d see if she could reach him and get back to me as soon as she had. The phone rang within ten minutes.

“I’ve just spoken with him. It’s what I thought, but I just wanted to make quite sure. You see I take meat back home with me to Spain. And yes, it is exactly as I thought…you do nothing.”

ARRGH!

ARRGH!

Last week I received a letter from Natural England.

As some of you maybe aware we were refused Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) when our Countryside Stewardship agreement ended almost two years ago; this despite the fact the farm, a county wildlife site, heaves with wildlife.

Briefly, for those of you new to my blog, I was not a happy bunny and set about trying to find out the reason why we’d been refused. It may appear trivial to some but an HLS agreement is gold dust on marginal lands. Locks Park never has, and never will be, a profitable cereal/intensive livestock farm; our cold waterlogged inhospitable clay soils sees to that. What Locks Park is able to do is generate a profusion of nature, support a herd of native, indigenous Red Ruby Devon cattle, a flock of Whiteface Dartmoor sheep and produce superb beef and lamb. It is also used to train and teach people a variety of different management skills for those interested in farming – or those who advise farmers, with the environment, wildlife and a quality product in mind.

Bristling with indignation, I bristled even more when I found there was an astonishing pot of money available for HLS agreements and yet there were a large number of smaller farms up and down the country in a similar situation to us. Why? An administrative cock up! It was easier to award those huge highly productive estates and pension fund farms an additional sugar-sweet honey pot rather than work at putting the money where it was most needed (and would be best used for the environmental benefits for which it was intended), to those thousands of marginal family farms trying to eke a  out a living and all too willing to do their bit for the environment.

I made a noise.  We reapplied. We were turned down again.  Flabbergasted I tackled Helen Phillips, Natural England’s Chief Executive.   The mountain quivered; a small hot stream of lava erupted. I thought we’d blown our bridges. We held our breath.  Specialists were sent in to re-evaluate our farm a couple of months ago…
…And last week I received a letter from Natural England.

the long awaited letter

the long awaited letter

For those of you not quite sure what it’s actually saying (I wasn’t) – here’s the punch line.

and the message is...Yes!

and the message is...Yes!

Yes, yes yes! It looks as if we’ve got it! Bang on the floor! Whistle, clap! Open a bottle, jump up and down! Hoorah!

Could this be the cracking of the nut for other farms like ourselves? I most sincerely hope so.

eas a cual aluinn falls - the highest in Britain

eas a cual aluinn falls - the highest in Britain

An extraordinary week to be away.  An extraordinary week to be without any of our normal communications; no phone, no broadband, no telly, just  a crackly old boom box which tunes into radio 4 with a protesting hiss and fart, fading out in an explosion of excruciating white noise at the pertinent  point… “Global meltdown!”  “Financial Armageddon…” “A day so black it’s impossible…” “No one has seen the like since 1920…” “The chancellor has just announced…” “Now we are going to our correspondent in Reykjavik for the latest on the collapse…” the rest frustratingly disintegrates in a furious high pitched whine.

Yes, I have savings in an Icelandic bank; researched carefully on such sites as moneysupermarket.com, make-your-money-work, what-to- know-about-investing-your-savings and how-to-get-the-best-out-of-your-money.  Before we left for Scotland I seriously toyed with the idea of moving my money out amid the panic and mayhem – but where to put it? Nothing seemed secure.  In the end I decided it was probably best to leave it alone, after all it was FSI backed.

Through last weekend the panic and collapse of the financial system worsened. We gleaned snippets in the foothills of the Cairngorms of the drama being played out across the world; stock markets crumbling, banks folding.  And in the car driving to Robert’s aspen conference dinner we heard of the American 700 billion dollar bail out being thrown out, and then succeeding in an enlightened form.  Arriving at our destination high in the remote north-west highlands, we learnt of the lack of positive response in world markets, which continued to plummet in chaos and turmoil.

Surreal, and strangely bizarre. On the one hand my eyes and mind were hungrily drinking in the remote ancient wild beauty of a landscape that feeds my very essence and on the other there was the banal, yet very real, material worry that I could lose my hard earned savings.

aspens by the edge of eas a cual aluinn

aspens by the edge of eas a cual aluinn

It would probably be better not to have even a radio.  Not a thing I can do about it.  I now inhabit a part of the world that is clothed in rocks three billion years old.  Today, in a wild isolated hanging valley, I stood at the head of the highest waterfall in Britain, watching a rainbow caught in the fall’s spangled spray which played on quivering, golden leaved aspens;   around me a curtain of blown mist parted to reveal scenery that made me ache with its beauty.  Billions lost? The fall on Wall Street?  The crumbling City? The crazy machinations of bankers? Armageddon? Standing there in the wind and the rain I felt rich beyond words and extraordinarily fortunate.

the mists lift to reveal an extraordinary panorama

the mists lift to reveal an extraordinary panorama

I began writing this in response to comments in ‘cull or not to cull’, but decided to publish it as a post in its own right. I have researched, read about and discussed the problem of bTB at length – with vets, farmers, scientists, ecologists, conservationists, people living, but not working in the countryside and those that do, city dwellers and politicians. I could give facts, figures, excellent examples and analogies for and against both sides of the argument. Personally I am, of course, subjective…I have a herd of cattle I care about hugely and are at risk; I also have a passion for wildlife. And I have to make a living from my work.

The question of whether or not to cull badgers is a complex one. It ain’t half as easy as many people make out. Quite simply, it’s not black and white. The science is uncertain, the risks are large, and we are dealing with emotions as well as facts. If we are going to find away forward, it will depend on us being open-minded, listening to each other and respecting each others’ values. Above all, we must be prepared to move our positions, to get off our high horses, to let our eyeballs settle back into their sockets. Far too many of us are entrenched: a position, for or against, has been taken, and that’s the end of it. If we are to get on top of this disease, for the benefit of all – people, cattle and badgers – we must start to pull together, use what evidence there is, consider the practicality of the various options open to us, and reach consensus on the way forward. It won’t be perfect and certainly won’t be easy, but it’ll be the best we can do.

I’ve had over a week to let Hilary Benn’s decision on a ‘no badger cull’ sink in. It’s coming around to my own herd’s bTB testing time again and I can feel the anxiety and worry beginning to build. This year there’s the added unknown of bluetongue vaccination and concerns that this could throw up more inconclusives or possible false positives. Oh happy times.

Maybe I’m a very simple soul or perhaps I’m missing the point altogether. But surely it’s staring us in the eyes – there is no perfect solution. There isn’t a ‘given success’ or some nice, easy erradicatrion programme. And there isn’t a course to be taken that will make everyone happy

bTB is out of control. A suitable vaccine is still years away (and only now they decide to throw extra money at it?), so forget that as an immediate solution. 28,000 cattle were killed last year, 14,000 have already been killed this year with the figure thought to rise to around 40,000 by the end of the year at an expected cost of £80 million to the taxpayer. Will the escalating killing and ever-increasing restrictions on cattle movements have an effect if it’s just one sided? Well of course it will, eventually, when all cattle have been culled. And yes, I am being facetious.

We need to do something.

‘Reducing the density of badgers over large areas (>100km2) where there are high levels of TB in cattle reduces the incidence’. ‘Removal of badgers is the best option at the moment to cut the reservoir of infection in wildlife, but vaccination will be vital in the longer term’. Sir David King’s main conclusions as reported by the Farmers Weekly.

Surely it’s high time all interested parties worked together and stopped this childish posturing? Here we are looking into the jaws of a recession, worried about food security, an energy crisis, possible wars and climate change. So, for pities sake, let’s get together; work out how we change certain farming behaviour and practises to minimise risk of bTB spread and have a sensible cull that will be effective at reducing bTB without causing nugatory destruction of badgers or unnecessary cruelty.

Whilst Robert was hobnobbing with royalty at the Royal Show last week I had one important thing I needed to do.
I wanted to lobby someone, anyone on the Natural England board of directors about the lack of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements being granted to small and medium sized farms. So bumping into a board member I’d had contact with several years ago gave me the perfect opportunity. Though no sooner had I started to speak she announced that she was not the person I should be talking to and firmly introduced me to Natural England’s chief executive, Helen Phillips.

Well, you can’t get better than that. Now it was up to me to make a strong, cogent case for fellow farmers up and down the country. As luck would have it she was having a heated discussion with the head of policies from the NFU on this very subject before my interruption. I had no idea at the time. Serendipitous.

I was blanked…. My nerves quivered. But no, I thought, this is vitally important, get a grip and get on! So I did. And she listened. And took notice. We agreed to keep in touch. Below is an excerpt of my recent correspondence to her…

From grass roots level this is how things appear. When HLS was first floated the take up was, I believe, mainly by farms that had no previous history of environmental schemes. These first payments were often substantial and included restorations of barns and the like. Then those whose Countryside Stewardship agreements were coming to an end applied, encouraged initially by your staff. You can imagine their surprise, disappointment and frustration when few were successful. It seems that only those applications with SSSIs or many habitats, footpaths, etc were successful. Hundreds of small to medium-sized farms like ours have been left in the lurch, while the large estates often owned by pension companies or similar have been granted agreements – with very large holdings it is, of course, much easier form them to accumulate the necessary points.

The impact on those many, many farms across the country which have not been successful (or indeed have been discouraged from applying), has been significant. They have adjusted their farming systems to meet the needs of their Countryside Stewardship agreements, often with much enthusiasm, only to find themselves high and dry and without a much needed source of income. Many have really delivered the wildlife and other goods that you are seeking. Some are now going into the red and having to resort to commercial farming of the land. Given the good budget settlement from Europe and the Treasury this rejection is hard to swallow. Meanwhile, the large estates and pension funds are benefiting, but will they show the commitment to the environment that us family farms will? I doubt it!

If it helps, I can explain what has happened on our farm. We had a Countryside Stewardship agreement for some 16 years, covering nearly half our land, but when we re-applied a year ago were unsuccessful because we did not score enough points. This despite much of the land being designated a County Wildlife Site, having a magnificent flower-rich meadow, supporting good numbers of dormice, barn owls, snipe, tree pipits, marsh tits, etc, and being crossed by a public footpath. What galled was the fact we were told ‘we were just not good enough’! Please come and see for yourself. I’d like to show you…

So all you farmers out there in the same situation as us – take heart if you can; speak to the various organisations concerned, keep on pushing and perhaps those elusive agreements will be forthcoming…

Locks Park Farm

Thanks for visiting my blog. All entries are presented in chronological order.

I have a small organic farm on the Culm grasslands near Hatherleigh in Devon, with sheep and beef cattle. I've been farming in the county for more than 30 years. I've set up this blog to share views on farming and the countryside - please do give your thoughts.

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The Campaign to Protect Rural England has helped set up this blog. We want farming to thrive in England, and believe that it is essential that people understand farming and farmers better in order for that to happen. Paula's views expressed here are her own and we won't necessarily share all of them, but we're happy to have helped give her a voice.

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