The Forgotten Improvements of Modern Agriculture-Country Matters By The Hodge

Country Matters
By The Hodge

“A sparrow in the hand is worth more than a flying goose”

It is interesting to see how matters evolve over time as organisations change. I’m thinking here of charities closely associated with, (but not exclusively so), the countryside such as the RSPCA and the RSPB. Decades ago, they were simply animal and bird welfare associations whose work revolved around improving the care of our fellow creatures.

After the Second World War, there was not the same level of awareness and care for the mental health of returning servicemen or indeed those civilians who had been traumatised by the effects of bombing etc. as we see today. The 1950s I recall was a period when animal cruelty was fairly commonplace and I have always attributed the many instances I witnessed with such people taking out their mental trauma on the animals that came into their ‘domain’. I well remember the handlers at livestock markets regularly hitting or beating animals during loading and unloading and the same occurred at abattoirs. The regular stockmen were a different breed but these poor souls were accepting whatever base employment was available and taking out their frustrations and difficulties on the livestock in their care. Dogs were beaten and allowed to roam in packs and unwanted kittens were placed in a sack and held in a water butt until they drowned. Gradually, much through the efforts of the RSPCA, things improved, albeit slowly.

Today, whenever a report tells us that a bird species is declining in numbers, as many do, the RSPB always seems to respond with a stock statement blaming ‘modern farming practices’ and the media accepts this without question. Yet modern farming is much more geared towards animal and bird conservation than ever before and the agricultural industry does a huge amount – whether willingly or not – to make the environment better whilst keeping track on a rapidly growing world population which is better fed today than ever before. Thus many of the insecticides and pesticides commonly used in earlier decades have rightly been banned and most of those remaining are fairly innocuous by comparison. Round-Up is a mere shadow of DDT yet it too is now being banned. Various government and EU initiatives target subsidies on agriculture by improving the conditions for wildlife with larger field margins, wild areas, more hedges and the growing of marginal crops to help overwintering wild birds.

Yes, some species numbers do decline but is the glib response that it is the fault of farming always fair? I walk quite a lot along roadsides and it amazes me how many little bundles of feathers can be seen where small songbirds have met their match against the hard metal or glass of a lorry or van or car. Indeed, the evidence of squashed pheasants, hedgehogs and badgers is there for all to see but no one seems to ever blame ‘road kill’. It’s accepted as a necessary expense for us all to get where we want when we want. Farmers do indeed drive but I think any survey would find that they are a tiny minority on our roads so why do the RSPB blindly just keep blaming them? And who should take the credit for those species that show an increase in numbers?

Our garden is a feeding spot for dozens of goldfinches and collared doves, both of which were as rare as hens’ teeth only a few years’ ago. Often I see and hear a buzzard overhead yet spent much of my earlier life never having seen one in the wild at all. Doubtless the RSPB might claim that such improvements are all down to them but surely it is at least partially down to the agricultural industry as well?

The RSPCA is today a much more political animal and has been censured in parliament for some of its activities. It is much more supportive of ‘animal rights’ rather than animal welfare. Is the reason for this that they see much of their traditional role disappearing as matters improve?

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