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Chairman’s Blog – by Robin Page


“Humane Milk is a Myth Don’t buy it. I went vegan the day I visited a dairy. The mothers, still bloody from birth, searched and called frantically for their babies……” so read a Vegan inspired full-page advert in The Times recently with no mention of who the “I” actually was.

My irritation was triggered because I was born on a farm with a small dairy herd (where I still live). The advert presented a scene that was unfamiliar to me. My first memories of the farm are of my father sitting on a three-legged stool, milking by hand. My last recent memory of milking was at The Countryside Restoration Trust’s brilliant Jersey herd at Pierrepont Farm in Surrey where the milking was being performed by two robots, guided by lasers – incredible – my father would have been astonished – as I was. A third robot is due to start next week.

Another early memory is of letting calves suck my fingers as I lowered my hand into a bucket containing the mother’s “colostrum” – the milk at birth full of anti-bodies and proteins. We didn’t use a posh word for it – we called it “bisnings” and I loved “bisning custard” – heated up, with sugar, it sets like a rather superior egg custard – it is Little Miss Muffett’s “curds and whey”. I still eat it when I can – delicious – but for some reason it is now classified as “unfit for human consumption”. Despite this, medical science is now taking a deep interest in it because of the anti-bodies it contains and some athletes are taking it before big events as they consider that it helps them to improve their performance.

Yes, I saw difficult calvings – birth can bring problems regardless of species – domestic or wild. But I saw many contented cows and calves. I also saw a calf tossed by a cow – not pleasant. My father was tossed three times by the bull before he changed from bull to artificial insemination. I still have a small “conservation grazing “beef herd – Red Polls, an East Anglian “rare breed”. I have  been tossed at least three times by cows – twice painfully while obeying Defra regulations for the ear-tagging of newly born calves. Why they can’t be micro-chipped when they are older is totally beyond the mental capacity of our Defra bureaucrats and Brussels Eurocrats. Two years ago the vet was nailed by a borrowed bull; he survived – but that was the last bull I will have on the farm – with age I run slower and don’t bounce any more.

Our Dairy herd went in the ‘Seventies – there was a milk lake and butter mountain we were told and over 300,000 British Dairy cows were slaughtered – those who ruled us forgot to tell us that the surplus was in mainland Europe, not in Britain. That was the first national milk scandal. The second occurred in 1994 with the destruction of the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) courtesy of John Major’s Government kowtowing to the EU’s rules on competition. The MMB ensured a fair deal for both consumers and producers but it was quickly dismantled and swept aside. A “free market” in milk began – my father – an elderly and wise man at the time said “this marks the end of dairy farming as we know it” – he was right.

Sir David Naish, one time President of the National Farmers Union became Chairman of Arla, one of the large dairy wholesalers – in my view a wonderful example of poacher turning gamekeeper.  Sir Richard Packer, who was permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture in 1994 received a knighthood and was also given a place on the Board of Arla. One of John Major’s key advisors at the time Lucy Neville Rolfe moved out of the Cabinet Office to become Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs at Tesco – and on the way she picked up a husband, Sir Richard Packer, and an honour – she became a Conservative Baroness. So for some, the dismantling of the MMB was a thoroughly good thing and quite clearly Metropolitan Musical Chairs is an excellent game to play – providing you have one of the chairs.

However, it was not such a good thing for the chairless – the dairy farmers and their cows. In 1995 there were 28,093 dairy farmers in England and Wales. In 2002, following Blair’s mismanaged foot and mouth outbreak , there were 19,200, which by July 2017 had fallen to 9,390. That decrease of nearly 20,000 hides a huge amount of anxiety, grief, broken dreams, wrecked marriages, breakdown and suicide. I have had the wife of a hard pressed Cumbrian dairy farmer crying on my shoulder; not pleasant. A factory closing down in Birmingham is news and worthy of political comment. A desperate dairy farmer shooting himself in his barn is off the political and media radar.

It is the buying power of the supermarkets that has created much of the problem. Prices have been forced down; gone is the willing buyer, willing seller of the mythical “free market”. Arrived is the almost monopoly buyer and the desperate, reluctant seller – with milk being sold cheaply as a loss leader, usually cheaper than bottled water. Of course the great Walter Mitty of British politics, Tony Blair, promised to break “the armlock of the supermarkets”. He never did – too busy de-stabalising the world. Then came “the Heir to Blair” David Cameron with a “Groceries Adjudicator” – what a waste of time, space and money.

Many of those surviving dairy farmers have usually taken the “more efficient” solution, which is the polite way of saying they have intensified and industrialised their farms in an attempt to stay in business. Many of the traditional breeds have gone that could be used for milk and beef – replaced by Holsteins – bags of bones that produce large quantities of milk but after two or three lactations (calves) are clapped out and ready to become burgers. In my view the black and white Holstein (not to be confused with the old British Friesian) is where genetics push against the boundaries of animal welfare. In America the fashionable, efficient form of dairying is to kill each cow after just one calf with the lactation extended chemically to over 400 days- so “agri-business” replaces “agri-culture”.

Maximum production means “efficiency” and “zero grazing”. The cows are kept indoors the whole time being fed on concentrates, silage and haylage made from fast growing, heavily fertilised grass. Quite often the stench from the cocktail of manure and slurry can envelope a whole parish – it should be completely unacceptable.

To aid “efficiency” mega-dairies with thousands of cattle take in grass from neighbouring areas. The mowers cut almost at ground level at running speed. Consequently most farms making silage and haylage have become wildlife deserts. The eggs and young of skylarks, lapwings,  curlews and grey partridges are minced; the adults and young of voles, harvest mice, leverets (the young of the brown hare) and roe deer kids are yet more victims. All over the south-west, the Lakes, Wales, the North of England – National Park or just open country the refrain is the same:” I have not seen a single hare, a breeding lapwing, a curlew for years – since the farms turned to intensive silage”. Other casualties are the bees, butterflies and many of the bugs, beetles and wildflowers of meadowland. It is wildlife wipe-out – a countryside tragedy affecting wildlife, livestock and communities – all thanks to the armlock of the supermarkets, a lock that remains unbroken. We should all be speaking out – the NFU, the CLA, the RSPCA, the RSPB, the National Trust etc –some are keeping quiet, or speaking very, very quietly.

Consequently the only voice that seems to have been heard concerning the state of British dairy farms is that of the vegans – a voice that misses the point.

The real victims, along with the cows, are the farmers themselves and a large swathe of Britain’s diminishing wildlife.

But the Countryside Restoration Trust is still speaking up for the cows, the sensible dairy farmer and the wildlife of grassland. Bring back the Milk Marketing Board and small local slaughter houses, which could be done very successfully with Brexit.

Read about the CRT’s Pierrepont  Dairy Farm in Surrey in my next blog.

Come to a CRT Friends’ Day at Pierrepont, hopefully in early to mid October – to be announced.