Farmers are harvesting a bumper crop of red tape

Magnus Linklater

A blizzard of crazy regulations is threatening the countryside's future

Jim Webster sent off the paperwork for his cattle this week. It came to 33 sheets of A4 paper, double-sided of course. He reckons he got off lightly. He had just heard of a local abattoir which had had to fill in 4,000 pages.

The request for information was down to a new EU regulation which requires all farmers to double-check the age and number of their cattle. This is over and above the elaborate “passport” scheme introduced after the BSE outbreak, which requires a form to be sent in every time an animal is moved off a farm, and another when it arrives at its destination.

Jim, who farms in south Cumbria, was remarkably phlegmatic. “It had to be done on paper,” he said, “because the computer system couldn’t cope with it. The software is obsolete and the database is crap. Luckily my wife understands it all. She filled it in on the kitchen table yesterday.”

He is less amused by the rule which orders him to clean and clip all the cattle he has been ordered to destroy under the post-BSE rules. This affects any cow or bull over 30 months old. They are sent straight to the incinerator, but under recent guidelines farmers must prepare them as if they were going to be slaughtered for food. It is a completely unnecessary rule, and dangerous to carry out. “I don’t know if you have ever tried to wield a pair of clippers close to a bull’ s testicles,” he said, “but it doesn’t exactly conform to health and safety regulations.”

For most of us bureaucracy is a necessary evil. For those attempting to make their living in the country it looms so large that it seems to threaten their very existence. It is confused, it is contradictory and it is driving them mad. I can well understand 37,000 hunting people saying they are prepared to go to prison rather than obey a law which would ban their traditional sport.

Their resentment stems from a belief that alien rules are being imposed by officials who know little about the realities of rural life and who do not, in any case, much care for them. A blizzard of regulations, from Brussels and from Whitehall, has enveloped farmers in the aftermath of BSE and foot-and-mouth. Lord Haskins, who was commissioned by the Government to report on the rural economy in the wake of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, found that red tape was the No1 source of complaint.

Farmers, he wrote, were “seriously impaired by the existence of a plethora of publicly funded agencies and programmes with little effective co-ordination or integration”. He is about to issue a follow-up report on ways to simplify the structure of countryside quangos.

It is not just the weight of officialdom that enrages farmers, it is the craziness that goes with it. A friend who keeps hens is allowed to sell eggs at her farm gate but is forbidden to supply them to the local grocer, unless every egg is date-stamped. The cost of the machine to do that is #3,000, which effectively wipes out even the tiny profit she was hoping for.

A new rule lays down that you cannot put kitchen waste, such as potato peelings or tealeaves, on to your compost heap if you keep animals. The idea is that you might throw out the remains of your Chinese takeaway, which might then be eaten by your pig, which might then pick up foot-and-mouth disease. Not many people in the country allow animals anywhere near their compost heaps, and in any event there is no proof that foot-and-mouth was caused by Chinese food in the first place. But the reasoning seems to be: hey, let’s have a rule banning it anyway.

From regulations that forbid dead animals to be buried on farmland to the latest requirement that every abattoir, however small, must install a previously unheard-of piece of equipment called a blood tank, the stranglehold is tightening. Lord Haskins is expected to recommend the dissolution or amalgamation of at least one agency, English Nature, which oversees conservation policy in England. But that may be a case of treating the symptom rather than the cause.

For what is looming is the promise, not of less regulation, but more. The Government’s new rural strategy, hammered out under the Common Agricultural Policy, aims to encourage farmers to become managers of the countryside rather than producers of food. It is referred to in EU jargon as “de-coupling” and though the aim is worthy, it will be enormously difficult to quantify.

How do you measure a meadow of wild flowers, or a well coppiced wood, against a herd of Aberdeen Angus or a flock of Cheviot ewes? How do you tell whether a farm is producing too many animals and what is meant by “diversifying?” It is one thing to count sheep or cattle numbers, even to issue them all with passports it is quite another to assess the biodiversity of a farm or to reward the owner proportionately for switching from production to conservation.

It is easy to see that legislating for that will take yet more guidelines and yet more complex paperwork. If farmers are not to be further alienated, it will need to be done sympathetically, at local level, and by people who understand something at first hand of rural life, rather than by centralised diktat. The easy assumption by towndwellers is that farmers are exploiters of the countryside, heavily subsidised and mostly rapacious. They are seen as intrinsically hostile to change. In fact they are the first line in defending the countryside, and they are remark- ably adaptable. The speed, for instance, with which large numbers have taken to organic farming is astounding.

If they are to be willing partners in the new era, they should be respected for their knowledge and listened to for their advice, rather than swamped in mindless legislation. I suggest that a few man-to-man discussions with the likes of Jim Webster would straighten things out more effectively than any number of double-sided sheets of A4 paper.