Putting the environment back into farming.

One result of Brexit is that the UK will be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU’s farming support programme. This, it is argued, has been responsible for much of the loss of biodiversity that has been evident over the last thirty years. Going back a decade or more, the only objective of the CAP was to increase the quantity of food being produced in the EU. Headage payments meant that farmers were paid per beast, no matter how degraded their land became as a result.  Wine lakes, barley mountains…..you name it, the EU paid for it.  It led to rapid intensification of agriculture all over the EU. This crazy system was eventually revised but farmers are currently paid according to how much land they own, with no maximum payment. It is a bit of a racket for those already having the deepest pockets. Ironically, but typically, those systems with the least negative impact on the environment, like organic farming, which is generally relatively small-scale, currently receive no additional subsidy at all.

In most of Wales agriculture is uneconomic without the EU subsidies that farmers receive. The millions of sheep roaming the Welsh hills would soon disappear if subsidies were taken away, and what a good thing that would be – some might say! But it is not that simple, unfortunately, because traditional Welsh rural culture (including the language) is deeply rooted in upland farming communities. (For more on farming in the Welsh uplands, click here)

When he was appointed the UK Farming and Environment Minister Michael Gove surprised us all by immediately declaring that he was “a closet environmentalist”, and meeting representatives of the big wildlife organisations very soon after taking office. Since then he has famously come up with the mantra “Public Goods for Public Money” – the former, in this case, meaning environmental benefits. Put simply, after Brexit,  farmers will no longer be subsidised unless they put something back into the landscape. As farming and environment are devolved to the Welsh Assembly, the latter is now putting its own slant on UK national policy. It is currently consulting widely on how its own agricultural support system will work in the future in Wales.  A rather dull WAG document called “Brexit and Our Land” has been produced and we are being invited to respond to it.

Fortunately, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and WWF have read it for us and produced standard documents that we can just sign and send, or that can be adapted to send a personal message to the Welsh government;  I used the RSPB version. When you click through to the correct page you are asked if you would like to personalise your response; if so there are three questions for you to answer. Once you have finished you can review the final document. To my surprise the points that I personally made were rather cleverly incorporated into a standard letter which made it look like I really knew what I was talking about!

It was widely accepted that Welsh farmers largely voted “leave” in the Brexit referendum. It was said that on June 24th 2016 the Welsh hills were metaphorically loud with the sound of firearms as farmers shot themselves in the foot. It only later seemed to became clear to them that the EU subsidies which they are reliant upon would cease once Britain left. I have very mixed feelings about Welsh farmers. It is true that they “follow the money”; in other words, if they are offered subsidies to produce sheep then that is what they will do. You can understand that. And I have no doubt that there are many who appreciate their surroundings and do what they can to maintain them in a wildlife-friendly condition.

But equally there are those to whom nature will always be “the enemy”, to be subdued, and if necessary destroyed, at every opportunity.  I met one last year while I was doing a bird survey, near my home in Ceredigion, perhaps the epitomy of rural Wales. Even I was shocked at what he had to say,  the gist of which was this:

“……there are far too many red kites around now……they should be shot…..”

How someone like that will adapt to his new circumstances it is difficult to imagine.

So, for those of you who live in Wales, you still have a chance to repond to the WAG consultation.

Stage 1 : Click here 

Stage 2 : Click on one of the logos at the bottom of the page

Stage 3 : Follow the instructions on the page you have selected.

There is plenty of information for you to digest if you wish to make a personal response as well.

But remember, the closing date for your response is October 30th.


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Photography on the fly.

Fly agaric, near Betws-y-coed

We’re well into autumn now and I recently decided I needed some photographs of that spectacular fungus, the fly agaric. I was up in north Wales for a couple of days, and a mixed forecast suggested I might get some sunny scenic landscape photography done; any cloudy conditions being more suitable for more intimate “autumn colours” and woodland scenes. Yes, I know I’m a traditionalist but at my age what do you expect!

By mid-morning on the first day it was starting to brighten up although a strong southerly wind was blowing. My first destination was a hilltop above Betws-y-coed, with the town deep in the valley below and the main peaks of Eryri in the background. But why not first spend an hour or so looking for fly agarics in the woodland leading to my destination? Two minutes later, right by the path, I had found my first! It was a perfect specimen, I thought, in my excitement, so I got the tripod out and began taking some ground level shots with my telephoto zoom. A passer-by told me that fly agarics were very common this year;  some images he showed me on his phone looked great, and I realised my own specimen was not actually that special – tall and broad, yes; but crimson in colour with flecks of white on the cap? No, not really. I had a look around.

Fly agarics are usually associated with birch trees (and sometimes pine or other species). The fungus has a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of the tree which helps both species thrive. What I found on my short exploration amazed me. Over an area of perhaps a hundred metres by fifty, I found several dozen fly agarics. Most were already past their best, being flat-capped, or even bowl shaped, with the red colouration having already faded towards orange. But I found one particularly photogenic group among some birch trees and did a bit of “gardening” to expose them. One was already broken off at ground level so I decided to make a feature of it alongside several other complete ones. Things are rarely as simple as you hope for, though, in this case because the sun was now shining brightly, creating areas of high contrast on the woodland floor. Every so often a tiny wispy cloud passed in front of the sun but even this didn’t give me the even lighting I needed for this shot. I wandered around, found more fly agarics, did some tai chi, looked at the sky over and over again, waited and waited some more. Eventually I realised that a better image would also include the mushrooms’ habitat so I swapped to a wide angle, placing them in the foreground with birch trees and bracken taking up the rest of the frame. Contrast was still a problem so I tried two other techniques:

1)  Using a ND grad over the brightest part of the image (at the top), and

2)  Bracketing with the intention of combining two images in Lightroom at the processing stage.

To some extent both worked, but the image (above) was processed using the HDR control in Lightroom. I had to examine individual frames carefully and choose those with the least subject movement for combining: the wind was still strong.

Thirty-six hours later I was back, and within five minutes had found a tiny, perfect little specimen freshly emerged from its protective sheath, looking just like something you might find in a very upmarket cake shop (see above). And it really wasn’t a difficult shot to take; a little gardening to clear dead bracken stems and twigs, tripod, aperture priority, f5.6 for minimal depth of field, and ….success!

Llyn Crafnant

The intervening day was glorious – warm, sunny and cloud-free; perfect for pure enjoyment but not great for the landscape photographer. I spent the night in the van by Llyn Crafnant above Trefriw. I do love the length of these autumn nights. No problem getting a good night’s sleep and no rush to be up before dawn. It was perfectly calm for several hours in the morning and, having found a good spot by the lakeside, I took a long series of images of the head of the valley and its reflection as the sun rose. In the end it was the very last image I took that was my favourite, so perhaps I should have waited longer!

Beyond the head of the valley, completely invisible from within it, lay the great peaks of Eryri – the Carneddau, Tryfan, the Glyderau, Yr Wyddfa and its outliers, and finally Moel Siabod. It was half-an-hour’s walk to a point where they could all be seen. Or so I thought: it actually took something like an hour and by the time I got there the sun was really too high and the sky too blue for successful image-making. But it was a great walk and I will do it again another day. As for the hoped-for view above Betws-y-coed, cloud was covering the peaks on both of my visits. Oh, and I got drenched in a two-hour downpour in woodland near Dolgellau on the way home. Light rain showers, the Met Office forecast said……….

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