Winter update

I’m somewhat embarrassed to realise that I have not posted anything on this blog since October. So I thought I would give an update as to what is going on, and what we are thinking about for the future.

It’s the middle of winter now, except that winter has not really happened at all. We have had rain, of course, and wind, but not sustained rain like that which some parts of England have suffered. We have had a few brief sights of snow but nothing serious or lasting. But we haven’t had any prolonged periods of cold weather. Frost has been occasional and fleeting, which is shame because cold frosty mornings and hard ground are some of the best times at Croick.

Of course, everyone is wondering if winter will continue as it is and then disappear with a whimper into an early spring; the snowdrops are already appearing. Or will it have a sting in the tail and shall we suddenly be confronted with snow and frost just when it is supposed to be getting warmer again. We shall see.

In general, I think wildlife finds it easier to deal with the cold than the wet. The deer generally seem in reasonable order but long periods of wet weather are debilitating and will see off weaker animals. And if wet weather is followed by severe cold that can be particularly fatal. So let’s hope we don’t have that. We only spy the squirrels intermittently but the nuts are still being taken and there are enough occasional sightings to believe that all is well. I guess if they can make it through the winter and then have another successful brewing season we shall start to have some confidence that a resident population is established and will gradually start to extend its range.

The sheep are off to someone else’s lower ground for the winter, ‘wintering off’ as it is called. It is expensive to do this, but so is feeding them through the winter ourselves, and the ground gets no chance to rest. They went at the end of December. The tups were with them for about six weeks before then, and so hopefully they are all in lamb. They will come back to us just before the start of lambing having given the grass here the chance to recover and provide clean, fresh growth.

We are down to fourteen cows, plus Walter the bull. We had fifteen but one of them did not seem to be doing well; perhaps she was being bullied by the others. So she was sold last Autumn. The remaining fourteen are all in calf, which has become very apparent in the last few weeks. They have really swollen in size. They are being fed at the moment just inside our forestry plantations and spend all their time in the shelter of the trees. They look overall in good order.

Walter has spent the winter inside Collecting him up at the end of the Autumn was an interesting experience; in the end you can’t make a bull do something he doesn’t want to do. So getting him into the trailer for his trip down the strath was, quite time-consuming. He seems very content inside and has certainly put on weight and looks in great condition. The first calves are due in late March and we have our fingers crossed for smooth and uneventful calving, with minimum human intervention.

While we wait for lambs and calves, we are also waiting for the Scottish Government’s final deliberations on the next round of Single Farm Payment (SFP), starting in 2015. Instinctively, I feel that subsidised farming is a bad thing, and I suspect most farmers, being the determinedly independent people they are, would agree. But the fact is that farming on marginal agricultural land like ours would simply not be economic without some level of government support. And competing with other farmers who do enjoy government support would eliminate all but the most productive and intensive agriculture. The question now really is whether it will be economic to farm as we do at Croick, even with subsidies. The key issue now, at least as far as we are concerned, is a current debate in Scotland about minimum agricultural activity.

Over the last decade, the EU has moved the Single Farm Payment (SFP) arrangements away from production or headage subsidies to area subsidies; your SFP entitlement is based on the land you farm, not how much you produce. This reflects the need to avoid past issues of unwanted food mountains and to move at least part of the subsidy rationale into paying farmers for environmental management of the land they farm. However, the problem this creates, at least in the minds of the Scottish Government and the NFU in Scotland, is that it can involve paying people to do nothing, particularly when the ground involved is moorland and other rough grazing. Of course, doing nothing – or at least getting away from historic over-grazing by sheep – might be the best way of keeping the land in good environmental condition, but it is deemed offensive, probably rightly,  that owners of such ground might get paid a farming subsidy without doing any farming. This is so-called slippered farming.

The preferred solution is to define a required minimum level of agricultural activity, proportionate to the area concerned, to qualify for a SFP. The big question is how is that minimum level defined, and is there a definition which satisfies the SG and the NFUS whilst also complying with the EU requirements are area and not production based. We shall see, but the ‘right’ answer is is critical to future farming at Croick. I don’t think there can be any debate that we are a genuine farming enterprise, the question will be whether the number of sheep and cattle we own is deemed sufficient for the ground for which we have an SFP entitlement. If the minimum level of activity is defined in terms of number of grazing heads, and is set much higher than our current numbers, it would require us to invest in much larger number of sheep and/or cattle to meet the defined minimum. If so, what would be the transition arrangements? Would the increase all have to be at one time? Could we afford the necessary investment? Would it ever make a return? I would be doubtful. And if not, do we end up have to reduce our stop all agricultural activity because it is not sufficient to attract a reasonable subsidy, and therefore becomes unaffordable?

These are critical issues for the future of the estate. I don’t want to be accused of receiving unjustified subsidies, but there is no sense investing in more agricultural activity if it will not demonstrate a proper return.

So while winter may be quiet outside, inside there is quite a lot to think about. And that nervous sense that a lot rides on the decisions of others over which we have no influence.

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2 Responses to Winter update

  1. Tony Malaty says:

    Hi James,

    What a beautiful description of winter for the animals on the estate!

    I was also very interested in your views on the difficult financial and public policy issues that impact farming on your estate. You might chuckle at the thought that in spite of now being in Canada, I sometimes tune in to Farming Today on Radio 4 while waiting for the Today programme to start. (I’m a bit of a night owl). I remember listening to a discussion on similar challenges to the ones you raise. However, your analysis really brought the matter to life.

    I also enjoy the photographs you post and that I catch through Linkedin. Works of art!

    Warmest regards


    • James Hall says:

      Tony, thank you for your note. It’s a long time since we have been in touch. I’m glad you like the posts. Hope Canada continues to suit you, even if you feel compelled to tune into the BBC. James

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