FOLLOWING a debate in the House of Commons, the attitude of Welsh politicians in the UK Parliament was thrown into sharp focus by comments made by both Conservative minister Guto Bebb and Wrexham’s Labour MP Ian Lucas.
It was Mr Lucas’ remarks which attracted the most notable reaction by Welsh politicians in the first instance.
He asked Mr Bebb: “Does the Minister agree that leaving the European Union offers a golden opportunity to assess the level of subsidy paid to farming in Wales to see whether that money can be more effectively and efficiently spent in other areas?”
The inference to be drawn from the question was crystal clear and was pounced upon by Plaid Cymru.
CALL FOR COMMITMENT ON AGRICULTURE
Carmarthenshire’s Jonathan Edwards MP, who was sitting in front of Ian Lucas MP in the Commons, called for Labour to urgently clarify whether it will cut financial support for Welsh farmers.
Plaid Cymru Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Simon Thomas, said: “Ahead of the Referendum, the people of Wales were promised that no funding would be lost by leaving the European Union. Since then, Plaid Cymru has made it our duty to fight to protect the funding that Wales receives, but Labour seems to view it as a chance for a smash and grab on Wales’ funding.
“We know that 80% of Welsh farms are dependent on European funding to support their businesses, but Labour has shown complete disregard for the interests of the people of Wales and its agriculture sector.
“Labour really has let the mask slip. Whilst Plaid Cymru is focusing on protecting the interests of Welsh communities, Labour is plotting to cut their funding.”
Mr Edwards said: “Labour’s blatant and worrying attack on Welsh agriculture is yet another sign that the Labour party simply does not understand the Welsh agriculture sector or the challenges faced by our rural communities.
“The Welsh family farm is not only a core component of the Welsh agricultural sector and the Welsh economy, but is the main channel through which we as a nation can achieve food and environmental security.
“This expression of contempt for our agricultural sector is utterly unjustified. Welsh farmers face tremendous financial challenges in selling their produce and Labour should be focusing their efforts on facilitating Welsh agricultural exports, rather than marking them as a target for austerity and cuts.
“The Labour MP’s constituency partner, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths, urgently needs to answer whether her constituency’s partner’s question reflects official Labour Party policy.”
FARMERS ARE ‘WEALTHY LANDOWNERS’
The Labour MP was unrepentant about his remarks and has gone on to further criticise the Welsh farming community, stated that Welsh farmers are ‘wealthy landowners’.
The Herald invited the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs to respond to her Westminster colleague’s remarks.
A spokesperson for the Welsh Government told us: “The First Minister made it clear to the Prime Minister earlier this week he is seeking assurances that Welsh farmers do not lose out financially as a result of Brexit. This means every penny currently received from the EU being replaced by the UK Government. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs also reiterated this to the UK Government’s Farming Minister.
“As we prepare to withdraw from the European Union, we must use the opportunity over the coming years to assess the specific needs of the farming industry in Wales and identify how we can forge distinctly Welsh policies that will enable Welsh farming to prosper in a post-Brexit world.”
‘NOT A PENNY LESS’
Welsh Liberal Democrat William Powell told The Herald: “In the economic conditions that we now face as a country, pressure on the public purse will be all the more acute. The Welsh Liberal Democrats are supporting the ‘Not a Penny Less’ campaign in terms of farm support, and this has proved popular on our stand at this year’s Royal Welsh Show.
“However, it is more important than ever for farmers to engage in the public debate, so that there is a better understanding of the vital contribution that they make as custodians of the land, in terms both of maintaining biodiversity, but also to the whole tourist sector, which we know is such a critical part of the wider rural economy.
“However, more important than anything for Welsh farming is securing long -term access to the European Single Market for our quality farm exports – and making that an essential element in the permanent post Referendum settlement. And with Andrea Leadsom MP’s comments about hill farmers ‘looking after the butterflies ’, betraying an evident lack of understanding and empathy for Welsh farming, it is vital that Wales retains a robust and distinct farming policy. Welsh Liberal Democrats will be fighting for this in the time to come.”
LABOUR INSULTS RURAL COMMUNITIES
Andrew RT Davies was trenchant in his criticism both of Mr Lucas and Lesley Griffiths: “These comments once again highlight Labour’s attitude towards rural communities, and it is remarkable that their MPs are actively lobbying to give less money to farmers.
“It follows comments from Leslie Griffiths, the Cabinet Secretary who insulted Welsh farmers by suggesting that they don’t make good business owners. Now they want to take their money away.
“During the campaign, senior UK government ministers gave guarantees that Welsh farmers would not be worse off after the UK leaves the EU, and I will continue to work with those colleagues to ensure that those promises are delivered.”
THE LESS CERTAIN MR BEBB
However, an examination of Guto Bebb’s responses to Commons questions on Wales’ farming sector reveals a less certain picture.
The Undersecretary of State was questioned repeatedly on the impact of Brexit on the funding provided to Welsh farmers.
In response to Ian Lucas’s question, rather than giving a ringing ‘no’ and committing the UK Government to maintaining funding levels, Mr Bebb said (emphases added): “We need to look at the way in which Government spend money. IF there is to be a funding mechanism in the future for Welsh agriculture, it MUST BE LOOKED at in the totality of Government spending.”
That is some way short of promises made by senior UK Government ministers that Wales’ farmers would not be worse off.
And to further underline how conditional UK Government’s support is, responding to a question from Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid’s MP for Dwyfor Meiryonnydd, the limited reassurance given was an ‘assurance to the farming unions that the current funding situation is in place until 2018’.
That echoed a previous response to Mark Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion, in which the conditionality of UK Government support for Welsh agriculture was again underlined: “… The ongoing support for Welsh farming will be subject to agreements involving this Government, the way in which we exit the European Union and the decisions taken by the future Prime Minister.”
That is, again, a long way short of Andrew RT Davies’s reference to a promise that Welsh farmers would not be worse off.
The reluctance to commit to a definitive answer is striking, bearing in mind that in the same questions to the Welsh Office, Mr Bebb stated that: “The farming sector is the economic backbone of the Welsh rural economy. The total income from farming in Wales is estimated at more than £175 million, but more important is the contribution that Welsh agriculture makes to our rural communities.”
He also remarked that: “More than 60,000 jobs in Wales are dependent on the agriculture sector, and it would be short-sighted in the extreme for any Government to turn their back on a sector that puts Wales on the international map.”
‘FARMING IS WALES’ BEDROCK’
Speaking at the Royal Welsh Show last week, Glyn Roberts, President of the FUW, made a series of emphatic observations on the importance of Wales’s agricultural sector: “There are almost as many people engaged in the milk industry in Pembrokeshire as there are people making a living in our Welsh steel industry. Yet there is a clear imbalance in political focus for supporting these two very important industries – an imbalance which also extends to all our agricultural sectors.”
He added that his aspiration and, indeed, the intention of the Farmers’ Union of Wales is to change this.
“We want to see the value and importance of the rural economy truly recognised, and to build a visible and valued Rural Powerhouse – not something that attracts industrial focus in a small geographic area, like the north-east Wales ‘powerhouse’ built around foreign manufacturing; what is needed is recognition of the fact that 80% of our land mass is rural; that more than a third of Wales’ population live in rural areas; and that farming is the bedrock of our rural communities, without which vast direct and indirect contributions to Wales’ economy as a whole would disappear.”
Avian Influenza identified in poultry on Anglesey
THE CHIEF Veterinary Officer for Wales, Christianne Glossop has confirmed the presence of avian influenza H5N1 in a small backyard flock of chickens and ducks at a premises on the Isle of Anglesey.
A 3km and 10km Temporary Control Zone Area have been imposed around the small infected premises, to limit the risk of disease spread.
The risk to public health from the virus is considered to be very low and these cases do not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers.
A case of avian influenza was confirmed in poultry and wild birds in Wrexham County borough last month. There have been similar findings of avian influenza in the UK and Europe.
On Wednesday this week the Chief Veterinary Officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland agreed to bring in new housing measures to protect poultry and captive birds from avian influenza. These measures come into force on Monday, 29 November.
All keepers are strongly advised to be vigilant for signs of the disease such as increased mortality or respiratory distress. If keepers have any concerns about the health of their birds, they are encouraged to seek prompt advice from their veterinary surgeon.
The Chief Veterinary Officer for Wales, Christianne Glossop, said:
“This confirmation of a case of avian influenza in poultry on the Isle of Anglesey is further evidence of the need for all keepers of birds to ensure they have the very highest levels of biosecurity in place.
“We have announced new housing measures will come into force from next Monday to protect poultry and kept birds, but I must stress that this is at its most effective when combined with implementation of the most stringent biosecurity measures.
“Public Health Wales has said the risk to the health of the public from Avian Influenza is very low and the Food Standards Agency has made clear it does not pose a food safety risk for UK consumers.
“Temporary control zones have been imposed to help prevent further spread of the disease.
“Suspicion of avian influenza or any other notifiable disease must be reported to the Animal and Plant Health Agency immediately.”
No badger cull but bTB strategy change on cards
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has ruled out controlling the spread of bovine TB through a targeted cull in areas where the disease is endemic.
A spokesperson confirmed the Welsh Government’s position ahead of the publication of a significant review of its TB eradication strategy.
The review, led by Professor Glyn Hewinson of Aberystwyth University, is likely to focus on cattle vaccination and the use of improved tests for TB bacteria in cattle.
False positives for BTB can only be detected after death by a post-mortem.
BOVINE TB DEVASTATES PEMBROKESHIRE FARMS
The persistence of the BTB bacteria in the soil and in the protected wild mammal population, particularly badgers, creates a perfect storm for farmers in our county.
The area around the shared borders of North Pembrokeshire, the Teifi Valley, and North West Carmarthen is a long-standing hotspot for the disease.
Farmers in that area have suffered disproportionate and repeated losses throughout the Welsh Government’s different approaches to eradicating BTB.
When the disease is detected in a herd, it is standard practice for all of it to be slaughtered. Although farmers are partly compensated for their loss, the loss of their stock leaves farmers with long-term problems for their business’s recovery.Herds’ loss and slaughter are linked closely to mental health problems among farmers and farming families. The cost of BTB is much greater than balancing profit and loss.
CURRENT PROGRAMME ISN’T WORKING
Local MS Sam Kurtz, who comes from a farming family, told The Herald: “Since the 1970s, bovine TB has been a dark cloud hanging over our agricultural industry
“While it may not have had the impact on the public’s psyche as the Foot and Mouth crisis had in the early 2000s, bovine TB has been a long and heavy burden on Welsh farmers, with over 20,000 cattle killed in the last 2 years.
“What the Welsh Government have in terms of a policy is the repetition of an outdated and inaccurate testing regime followed by stringent and debilitating restrictions on farmers.
“It is clear, from the latest data showing new bovine TB cases in Wales have risen by 3%, that the Welsh Government’s current eradication programme is simply not working.
“Throughout the pandemic, our farmers have worked 24/7 to keep food on our tables, despite being laboured with the stresses and concerns of routine TB testing.
“The industry is now desperate for some urgency and a change in strategy.
“A new testing regime, Enferplex, delivers superior accuracy than the current test.
“While it is being undertaken in small pockets of Wales, a dedicated pilot scheme of this new test to collect hard data must be a priority for this Welsh Government.”
The Enferplex Bovine TB antibody test identifies the presence of bovine tuberculosis. Used in conjunction with existing tests, it is far more accurate than current tests in validating positive diagnoses.
EFFECTIVE PROGRAMME MUST TACKLE ALL ASPECTS OF DISEASE
The FUW believes that any future changes to the bTB eradication programme should closely follow the science to develop an effective eradication programme covering all aspects of the disease in Wales.
An FUW spokesperson told us: “Bovine TB continues to suffocate businesses in the high and intermediate areas of infection in Wales and continues to have a significant detrimental effect on the mental health and well-being of our farmers and their families.
“September’s Quarterly Publication of National Statistics on the incidence and prevalence of tuberculosis in Cattle in Great Britain shows variable results, with no year-on-year change in the number of herds that are not TB free in the High West Area of Wales, and a 26% rise in the number of herds not TB free in the Intermediate North Area.
“Such results continue to devastate businesses that have made massive sacrifices
to comply with the Welsh Government’s costly and burdensome bovine TB eradication programme.
“The FUW welcomes further research on this devastating disease as part of a science led and pragmatic approach to TB control in Wales. We look forward to the publication of the next TB review and will be discussing the findings of the review at all relevant political and policy levels.”
NFU CYMRU: WELCOME REVIEW BUT URGE OPEN MIND ON CULL
NFU Cymru County Adviser for Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, Peter Howells, said: “It is concerning to see the latest bovine TB statistics published by Defra that show a rise in bovine TB incidents and the loss of 10,775 animals in Wales to this dreadful disease in the year ending June 21. This once again highlights that bovine TB continues to wreak havoc on the cattle industry in Wales.
“In October 2017, we saw the Welsh Government introduce a regionalised approach to tackling the disease in Wales.
NFU Cymru is supportive of an approach that allows for the appropriate measures to be introduced depending on the circumstances.
In Low TB areas of Wales, we must do all we can to keep the disease out. In areas of the country, such as South West Wales, where the evidence suggests that both cattle and badgers suffer from this disease, we believe that the disease will only be brought under control through a comprehensive package of measures that tackles the infection in both populations.
“We continue to urge Welsh Government to take note of the evidence published from England. A peer-reviewed scientific report examining the effectiveness of badger culling in reducing outbreaks of TB in cattle has shown positive results in England.
“The Defra-commissioned report revealed an average reduction in the incidence of bovine TB of at least 40% in areas of England that have completed at least four years of culling.
“Just across the border in Gloucestershire, the report has shown a 66% decline in new TB breakdowns.
“NFU Cymru continues to use every opportunity to raise with the Minister for Rural Affairs our concerns for the emotional and financial impact this disease causes to farming families. Earlier this summer, we wrote directly to the First Minister on this matter.
“We are aware that the Minister has said she will make a statement on the TB programme later this autumn and that Professor Hewinson is currently carrying out an internal review of the programme. We are pleased that the Minister has asked someone of Professor Hewinson’s experience and expertise to carry out the review and we await with interest the publication of the review.”
WG: EVIDENCE OF CULL’S EFFECTIVENESS INCONCLUSIVE
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “TB in cattle is a huge challenge for all concerned and distressing for farmers who have to deal with it in their herds. Part of the solution to the problem is people’s willingness to work together, both in Government and the industry.
“The Wales TB Eradication programme is built on co-operation, with three regional eradication boards working at a local level to ensure policies are developed collaboratively and communicated effectively.
“We have outlined in our Programme for Government we will not permit the culling of badgers as part of measures to deal with bovine TB.
“Recent scientific studies did not provide conclusive evidence that culling badgers alone would reduce incidence levels in cattle herds.
“It has been proven that more infection is transmitted within species than between species, which suggests that controlling transmission among cattle is a priority in the strategy for eliminating TB.
“When the Intensive Action Area (IAA) was established in 2010 with additional measures introduced into the High West TB area, 27.1% of herds were restricted due to TB control. At the end of June 2021, 14.5% of herds were restricted, constituting a decrease in herd prevalence between then and now of 46%.
“We are committed to undertaking a review of the current TB eradication programme, and we will announce a refreshed approach later this year.
“All aspects of the programme will be considered, and we will undertake a consultation in the Autumn to inform future policy.”
VACCINATION AND THE FUTURE
The irony is that a largely effective vaccine already exists.
The BCG vaccination given to humans is 70% effective when used to immunise cattle. The vaccine uses the TB bacteria to provoke an immune response. Once it’s used, however, tests cannot detect the difference between cattle successfully inoculated and infected cattle.
Therefore, vaccinating cows with BCG is banned in most countries, enabling vets to continue to use the PPD skin test to diagnose the disease in cattle.
Scientists at the University of Surrey believe they could have a solution to that problem.
By manipulating the disease’s genetic make-up, the scientists created a BCG-minus strain. They then developed a new synthetic skin test that, like existing tests, will be positive for animals that have been exposed to TB. Unlike those tests, however, the new test will show a negative result for animals that have been vaccinated with the BCG-minus strain.
Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, said: “To control the spread of bovine TB, effective vaccination and accurate early diagnosis of the disease are critical. This new vaccine provides protection against bovine TB. It will help fight against this deadly disease that infects over 50 million cattle worldwide and is economically devastating to farmers.
“The next stage of our work will be to demonstrate that both synthetic skin test and BCG-minus vaccine works in cattle herds. If they do, then it will be possible to vaccinate cattle against TB yet retain the value of skin test for diagnosis.”
Ceredigion dairy farming family highlight benefits of knowing your farmer
KNOWING your farmer, being able to ask questions about their produce and how they look after the land is of paramount importance to Ceredigion dairy farming family the Thomas’s.
The third generation to farm at Pantfeillionen, Horeb, Llandysul, Ceredigion, are Lyn and Lowri Thomas. Lyn has been farming since he was 16 and celebrates just over 32 years in the industry this year.
The family looks after 170 acres and rents a further 100 acres, with the land down to grass. 70 dairy cows, a few sucklers and calves which get sold on as store cattle, call these green hills home.
Farming, the couple say, has changed a lot in the last few decades and the industry has moved with the times. The way forward for the family is to maintain the small-scale ethos of the family farm and connect on a personal level with their customers who buy raw milk directly from the farm.
Describing their farming system, Lyn says: “We do all our own silage and everything is done in house. We don’t use a lot of fertilizer, some yes, but we can’t use too much because of the nature of the ground. We’re farming on rock so that means we need to be careful otherwise our grass would burn on the south facing slopes.
“There’s not a lot of topsoil here so we have to use some fertilizer to keep the grass growing but usually no more than a bag an acre is used for silage with some slurry. We don’t go overboard with slurry. Slurry is restricted to about 1700-2000 gallons an acre.”
Lowri adds: “Our earth worm population is very healthy. We try to compost farm yard manure and like to keep it for more than a year, but of course with the new NVZ regulations that won’t be possible going forward. It’s better for the ground if it has been composted for 2 to 3 years but that’s a different story.
“We try and do things as sustainably as we can here, we don’t buy a lot of stuff in and try to grow what we need ourselves.”
The cows get fed some cake but most of it is milk from grass and silage in the winter, explains Lyn. “We look after our cows, if we don’t look after them -they won’t look after us. We see them every day and if something is wrong then it gets dealt with straight away.
“The foot trimmer comes in every six weeks, the vet is here monthly for a routine fertility visit where we can chat about the herd’s health at the same. We milk record monthly with NMR, this is when Johne’s testing is done, and we try to keep the cows as healthy as possible.
“The healthier our cows are, the more productive they are and that also hinges on the health of the environment around them,” he adds.
“We haven’t got a large herd, we know every cow, some even have names thanks to the kids. Because we milk them ourselves, we see them twice a day. They have little groups and we know which cow belongs to which group of friends.
“They have access to the sheds, all through the year, so they can go in and out as they wish over spring and summer. If they’re coming in we know that’s where they want to be. They have 2 safe places,” explains Lowri.
The family has started a raw milk by the bottle business, which customers can buy directly from the farm. It started with neighbours asking if they could buy some and after a bit of deliberations in 2018 they set up the business, registering with the FSA and local authority, and the ball was set in motion.
“Milk started being sold directly to customers in March 2019 on a small scale and low key way to help build the business up gradually. We know all of our customers, and didn’t install a vending machine on purpose.
“We want to know who our customers are and speak to them and it’s good for them to know who we are as well. It gives us a chance to explain how we farm and look after the environment and the cows.
“When Covid hit last year, people became more aware of where their food was coming from and what was around them.We picked up more customers through that as well. It’s absolutely fantastic and more and more people now look for local food products, conscious of where their food comes from and how it’s produced,” said Lowri.
Lyn is passionate about the ground that feeds his cows, understanding the direct link between the environment and the health and welfare of the cattle.
He says: “ We don’t push the land too much. We farm it sustainably, it gives enough grass for the cows but it’s not overstocked. We could keep more stock but then we’d need more fertilizer and more food for the cows. I’d rather not do that.
“We have about 0.8 cows per acre here, which is below average. But with more stock to feed, we’d have to reseed the grass more often.
“I haven’t reseeded a field here in 7 years and then it was only because it was old ground when we bought it. It’s still going and we have grass here that’s been going for 25 years. So that’s storing a fair bit of carbon.
“We aerate the fields, cut slots in to drain the water off and keep fertilizer application to a minimum – it all helps to maintain a healthy environment and soil that stores tonnes of carbon.”
“When the cows come in over the winter, we drip feed the fields with slurry. The first grazing here in March is excellent, the grass is ready to go because it’s been drip fed over the winter. We apply only a small amount every now and then and it works wonders. We’re therefore quite concerned about the NVZ regulations which won’t allow us to carry on looking after the land that way,” Lowri adds.
The wildlife on the farm is plentiful with kites, buzzards, owls, herons, woodpeckers, bats, frogs and foxes, rabbits and badgers as well as deer inhabiting the hedgerows and land that can’t be accessed with hedge cutters.
“There is plenty of undergrowth and habitat here for the wildlife to flourish. We’ve certainly seen an increase in wildlife since the lockdown and it’s a joy to see,” says Lowri.
The family have also planted some trees at the start of the year to fill in gaps in hedgerows. Taking part in a community growing project in Llandysul, Lowri received a surplus of 100 native trees which include oak trees, crab apples, cherry trees, dogwood, willow and birch. Lowri is looking forward to seeing how they grow in years to come.
“We chose random places to plant the trees, mainly where we had gaps in hedges and on ground that’s too wet for the livestock. All of this will provide extra habitats for wildlife in years to come.
“Blackthorn hedges were also planted along fields that have been amalgamated and will provide wind shelter for the cows and also nesting habitats for farmland birds,” said Lowri.
Lyn and Lowri are proud to produce food and look after the environment they call home but get disheartened with the negative stories surrounding the industry.
Lyn says: “A lot of the information put out now is referring to farming on a global level. Large scale and intensive farming. And in some parts of the world that’s true. But our farming systems here in Wales are different – we farm with the environment.
“You’ve still got your traditional small family farms, looking after the land. Because if you look after the land the land looks after you. That’s an important distinction. People also need to ask where their food comes from and how it’s produced and farmers in Wales have a great story to tell.”
“We’re not very good at telling people how we produce food. I understand how food is produced through my background of being a vet.
“So when I go into the supermarket and look where the food is coming from – I know what to look for and I distinguish between packaged locally and produced locally. But to be really sure – go to your local butcher, green grocer and small shop or farm shop and that way you can be sure, as a consumer, that your food has been sustainably produced and it’s farmed in harmony with the environment.
“We’re not horrible people, farmers have been portrayed as polluters and not fit to look after their animals. It’s time we tell them how well we look after our lands and animals,” Lowri said.
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