High on opinion but low on facts.

Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth
Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth

Following a talk in Aberystwyth by George Monbiot last spring on “rewilding”, a local ornithologist and friend Roy Bamford wrote a full-page article on the subject in our local newspaper, the Cambrian News. His main thrust, borne out of many years of personal experience, was that rewilding may happen – come what may – and that its effects may be unpredictable. The article was almost entirely uncontroversial but was followed a couple of weeks later by a letter from the Farmers Union of Wales. This included a personal attack on the author and a suggestion that he was quoting tittle-tattle from the internet (among other things) to support his case. I felt that this should not go unchallenged so wrote the following, which was published in the Cambrian a few weeks later.

I am writing with reference to Roy Bamford’s piece ( 3rd July) on rewilding and the subsequent letter from the Dafydd Jones, vice-chairman of the Ceredigion FUW.

Firstly I suggest that it is unfortunate that Mr Jones chose to make such personal comments in his letter. Mr Bamford has already defended himself on the letters page but a less modest man would have gone further. His knowledge is based on the many years of professional field work he has undertaken. It is upon this field work that much research into the relationship between agriculture and wildlife in the Welsh hills has been based. I cannot think of many people more qualified to make these observations than Roy Bamford. So if he quotes studies that include photographic evidence of sheep eating curlew’s eggs then this not an anecdote, it is a fact – unlikely as it may seem to most of us.

On a far more limited scale I have been surveying the same tract of land above Tal-y-bont for 20 years. I walk the same route twice a year and record every bird that I come across. I follow a fence line with improved grassland and heavy sheep grazing on one side, and unimproved grassland or “ffridd” on the other. The contrast could not be more marked. With its very low sheep numbers the ffridd is, in effect, rewilding in action, and it is home to a large and varied selection of small birds. The improved grassland might as well have been concreted over for all the wildlife it contains. A few meadow pipits and a few scavengers and that’s about it.

The farmers that Mr Jones represents have benefitted to the tune of many, many millions of pounds from the public purse since the last war. This same period has seen the Welsh uplands becoming demonstrably more and more impoverished in an ecological sense. The farming industry has itself become more depleted at the same time. Rather than the mixed farming of earlier generations, does the average hill farmer now grow more than one crop – grass? Does he farm more than one product – sheep? I suggest, in many cases, that the answer is no. Through its lack of vision the sheep farming industry has manoeuvred itself into a cul-de-sac, an evolutionary dead-end. So it is a shame that the FUW does not show a more open-minded attitude to the future – which may well include rewilding. It would be far more constructive to do so, and they would be doing their own members a service.

I could have published this letter under “name and address withheld” but chose not to. I’m not afraid to hold such opinions, which would, anyway, probably be held by a large percentage of the population. I realised that the letter might be read by the landowner whose land I walk and that there might be repercussions. And so indeed there have been. This year permission to access his land was refused.

The Cambrian News did not print the final sentence of my letter, which was as follows:

Instead we get the same anti-environment rhetoric that has become the norm from the farming unions – high on opinion and low on facts.

I’m not denying that hill farming might at times be a challenging occupation. I’m not denying that sheep farmers work hard. But so much of their income comes from the public purse. What benefit does the public receive in return for their support? By displaying such reactionary, head-in-the sand attitudes, and continuing to deny what is quite clearly true, farmers and their representatives are their own worst enemies. When the public money runs out they will need all the friends they can find.

I’m including an image of ring ouzels taken yesterday. This has become a scarce species over the decades in Wales, and they are now difficult to see, let alone photograph. But this small group of migratory birds has been feasting on ivy berries not far from here in recent days.

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4 thoughts on “High on opinion but low on facts.

  1. I thoroughly agreed with your original letter and was so pleased you responded whereas I just fumed in frustration. I am now sorry but not surprised that you have been banned by your local farmer; I had a similar experience when monitoring kites as an old fellow way up a valley mistook my husband who is bearded for a local conservationist of long standing (who is also bearded) and who had the temerity to publicly question the wisdom of mixing men with guns and public access areas during a foxhunt on Cors Caron particularly as his family with young children present had had a confrontation with same. ‘Get off of my land’ he roared before I eventually got him to see Bri was not that chap just similarly bearded and English! The deep paranoia of rural farmers often prevents common sense prevailing and unfortunately this is often encouraged by the farming press and the NUF and even Ministers, remember the ‘Green Blob’ rant by Paterson!

    1. Liz,

      Thanks very much for your comment and support. The same kind of attitudes prevail over the badger cull. The farmers and farmers unions seem to think that if you repeat the same untruths enough times people will believe them. One farmer I met told me how badgers kill lambs…..

      “A lamb is asleep at night and a badger blunders along. It wakes the lamb which thinks the badger is its mother, so the lamb follows the badger. The badger doesn’t like this so it turns around and bites the lamb on the nose. The wound gets infected and the lamb dies.”

      You can imagine this nonsense doing the rounds at the mart and they all believe it! What really made me angry was that Plaid Cymru promoted the badger cull for all that time, despite the evidence that it wouldn’t work and might even make things worse. In the pockets of the farming unions.(A bit like the English Tories, really……)

  2. Fighting talk! Well said. Haven’t seen an ouzel for yonks ….. good to see there are still a few around.

    1. Hi Brian,

      Good to hear from you.

      There have apparently been a few parties of ring ouzels passing through Wales this spring, which is not normally the case. Just good luck that one has stppped by on a well-watched hillside.

      I’ve got this weakness which makes me think I can change the world on my own, I’m afraid. It has got me in trouble in various ways over the years…….


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