Flowering Hedges - East Lothian

Sheltering from the wind? - April 28, 2017

The Humble Hedge – Part 1

‘Up to half farm income will stop when the tap from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is turned off in 2020. That’s a lot of money that will not be spent in East Lothian.  But, currently there is no strategy to combat this,’ writes Francis Ogilvy, owner of Ogilvy Chalmers, land agents, surveyors and architects in East Lothian.

Francis continues: ‘Hedges offer a barometer of agricultural spending on environmental features.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that if farming is not profitable, the state of our hedges is likely to diminish.  Given that they are critical to the existence of numerous plants and animals, the knock-on effects of additional loss of wildlife habitat could be significant.

Over 100 of East Lothian’s 180 professional farmers were active with environmental schemes in 2005. Over-subscription of popular schemes saw the funding pots dry up. A carrot dangled – only to be taken away just when it was starting to take effect through short-term political meddling. Now we have a system so complicated, the money goes on the computer package but not out to the farmers so the schemes don’t take effect.  The same is true for forestry so the tree-planting targets are now miles off target.

“Nothing new under the sun”?

“If the few obstacles which have been noticed were entirely removed, improvements would certainly advance more rapidly; if enclosing, draining, liming, and planting, were carried forward, as far as circumstances require, the face of the county would be greatly beautified, and its produce much increased.”

That quote was from the ‘Statistical Account’ in 1805!

Perhaps Solomon was right to suggest there is nothing new in the world! But with change on the horizon, do we seize the day and, like the Brexit campaign theme, seek to ‘take back control’? The CAP provided stability for some, but without this support, are there local options worth exploring, like the example of teaching someone to fish instead of handing out meals?

East Lothian led the way in agriculture in the 1700s following the Act of Union with outward looking entrepreneurs.  John Walker of Beanston introduced the grass ley; John Cockburn of Ormiston pioneered enclosures and leasing ideas; James Meikle was sent to Holland by Lord Fletcher.

The poor harvest of 1793 was instrumental in driving change. There followed a series of pendulum swings, notably in one direction whilst Napoleon was rattling cages and back again after Waterloo.

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, marked the end of artificially high home-produced grain prices. The market reacted downwards, arguably never to rise to the same highs again.

Two hundred years ago you could buy a bushel of wheat for 42 shillings; if I’ve done my maths correctly, this is equivalent to £1,042 for a tonne today.  Now, the going rate is £142! Small wonder there were so many improvements able to be made.

Why hedges?

What has all this to do with hedges? They offer metaphorical ‘low-hanging fruit’ for integrated land-use and a litmus test for the biodiversity of the countryside.  Local hedgerow surveys suggest that only 41% of hedges are in favorable condition which is a concern.  “Why don’t ‘we’ do something about this?”

Who is ‘we’?

Often in saying ‘we’, the meaning is ‘anyone other than me’! This can be born from experience – ‘how can I do something?’ But that depends on ‘they’ – usually the easiest scapegoat and often the politicians.  For sure they play a role, but unless we all pull on the same rope, these shared objectives fall at the first hurdle. Tackling hedges is therefore a test for how we might address the rural economy as a whole.

East Lothian has 75% of its land under agricultural production. Unquestionably, it is a rural county. Is there a credible rural policy for three-quarters of the county, or is it in fact focused (understandably) on the majority of the population?

There is a strong case to learn from the writer in 1805. That requires risk taking on the one hand in order to bring about change. There is arguably more to be gained by the gamble of relaxing rules than playing safe and ending up with more of the same – causing death by cynicism and regulation suffocation.  This is surely not why the Brexit vote went the way it did.

It is arguably time to embrace gradual change in the countryside based on ideas that emanate from within.  That’s where the greatest vested interests lie for the long term.  Let’s lead the way again!

Francis Ogilvy