Much the most heartening sign of spring from this vantage point has been the gradual emergence of vegetation – one hesitates to call it grass – from the gradually receding floodwaters.
The moors south of Langport are permanent pasture and well-adapted to intermittent flooding, so the land will eventually recover. After 12 weeks under water, I doubt if the grass will be much use before July at the earliest, and other parts of the Levels – around Moorland or on Currymoor, for example – have fared much worse.
Still, this spell of dry weather has done wonders for the collective agricultural morale. As I drove down to Exeter a few days ago, it almost seemed as if the land itself was heaving a great sigh of relief, as the sun came out and the waters ebbed away.
I noticed there were even some cows out in the Culm Valley, enjoying the exercise and fresh air, if nothing else. And, as ever, I felt for their zero-grazed cousins, confined to their all-mod-cons sheds. I wonder if they feel particularly miserable, when they can sniff spring in the air, calling them out to pasture?
Lambing is in full swing, at least on lowland farms, and is going pretty well, by all accounts, with fewer horror stories about Schmallenberg disease, thank goodness. A combination of the vaccine and last year’s dry summer, which reduced midge activity, seems to be doing the trick.
And if the weather stays dry, I confidently predict that there will be more muck spread over the course of the next four weeks or so than in any comparable period in British farming history!
But I am afraid that spring has not brought with it any change in the main political preoccupation in farming, which remains bovine TB, and in particular, the wretched badger cull. I say “wretched”, not because I am against culling diseased badgers as an essential part of the strategy for beating the disease, but because I am very far from convinced that the cull which MPs were debating (prematurely) last week is the best model, and because of the resources, political capital and goodwill which it is using up to achieve what is at best an uncertain outcome. At the time of writing, the report of the independent panel which is evaluating last autumn’s activities had still not been published, but I think it is reasonable to assume the criticisms leaked to the BBC may not be a million miles from the truth, and that loads more controversy is in store when the official report finally sees the light of day.
The saving grace will be that the “need to learn lessons” from the pilot culls, which Defra Ministers have already acknowledged, should open the way to a complete re-think. The existing model of cull may or may not work for disease control – it will be several years before we find out – but it certainly doesn’t work for the people involved. It is too cumbersome, too costly, too easy to sabotage and too open to the criticism that healthy badgers are being killed alongside diseased ones.
It is time for Owen Paterson to display some of his characteristic boldness, and sanction a much more targeted cull, aimed at eliminating badgers known or strongly suspected to be diseased. If he is challenged in the courts by the badgerists, then so be it. If the worst came to the worst, the Government could always change the law.