William Byrd may write about the ‘Sweet and Merry Month of May’, but in farming circles it means that it is time, once again, to deal with the dreaded forms from the RPA. The Rural Payments Agency came in to being in 2005 to administer what is popularly referred to as the Single Farm Payment, paid under the Common Agricultural Policy. Unfortunately, it was ‘blessed’ with the worst computer system ever devised by man, highly complex forms accompanied by a foot-high pile of A4 sized ‘guidance notes’, each of which superseded the one you had struggled through a couple of days before (but without the changes highlighted), and written exclusively in Civil Service-type language – just the sort of thing to tempt you into the farm office after a long day of physical work. Things have improved in the intervening years but it still only needs one tick in the wrong box or decimal point in the incorrect place, and bang goes any hope of financial help from Europe for the whole of the production year – hence the stress!
Farm subsidies have always been an emotive issue, and they are incredibly complex. Unlike most industries, farming is totally at the mercy of two things – the weather and commodity prices. It seems incredible that we are the only industry that I can think of that produces something with absolutely no idea of what we will receive as an 'end price'. If you make cars for example, you can easily work out what they cost to make and market, and the price you need to charge to make a profit.
No government wants food riots on their hands and so, back in 1962, the Common Agricultural Policy was born. It provides support payments to farmers, in one guise or another, to act as a 'safety net' and ensure that food prices do not go 'through the roof'. Other industries, such as aircraft travel for example, also receive subsidies, but they tend to be more covert. Personally, I believe that it is only right that we should be open and above board about what we receive from the public purse because, at the end of the day, at its most simple, a subsidy for the farmer is, in fact, a subsidy for the consumer. It enables us to produce top quality, fully traceable food at a reasonable price. In exchange, we must abide by very strict rules and regulations which not only ensure some form of food security for the public but also enable us to take some land out of production for the benefit of wildlife and the countryside.
And now for that other burning topic: 'How is the pheasant?' The answer to that is: 'Regrettably, very well thank you!' At the end of April, his appalling behaviour reached a peak and we were getting a bit desperate. However, two things happened in quick succession that caused matters to change radically overnight.
The first episode occurred when he spotted yet another unsuspecting victim who was busy taking water samples from the farm pond. With great glee, the pheasant hurtled across the field in 'full attack' mode. If you have seen him on The Hunts Post video, you will know that the only way to prevent the pheasant from getting a grip on your legs and pecking is to keep throwing your legs forward as you walk. It didn't take his victim too long to work that out but, as he tried to continue his work, the pair of them appeared to develop a somewhat macabre dance as they slowly edged their way together along the bank of the pond. Suddenly the pheasant got his timing wrong and slipped into the water. Any other bird would have drowned, but this boy is a real survivor and merely emerged again, a little wetter!
The second proved to be the real clincher. Someone else was getting very fed up with his antics, deciding that the usurper of her kingdom had finally taken one liberty too many. Retribution arrived whilst I was sitting in the kitchen. Something hit the French windows with such force that the doors actually bounced in the frame. I looked up to see Hippo, our farm cat, and the pheasant standing side by side on the step outside. At that time, I did not know exactly who had done what to whom, but since then, the siege of our house, yard and garden seems to be over. One tiny cat has succeeded in teaching the pheasant some manners.
The bang on the head has also knocked some sense in to him. He has finally managed to find himself a wife!
Inevitably, this exhibitionist has acquired a real stunner of a hen pheasant. She is young and svelte with elegant markings. They come and feed in the garden together twice a day. Hopefully, from now on, his mind will be on other things and we will get some peace. I suppose that it really is a case of 'all's well that hen's well' (with apologies to Shakespeare).