When Tony Temple went out to the shed and found his cattle slavering, he knew it meant trouble. Drooling is a symptom of the worst trouble Britain's farmers have faced in a generation: foot-and-mouth disease. The resulting cull claimed the Cumbrian farmer's 2,000 sheep, 110 cattle, eight pigs and one goat. "I never dreamed it would hit us," he says. Instead of watching his lambs grow fat, Temple is wondering how and when he'll be able to restock his empty fields.
As the virus devastated thousands of farms over the past seven months, fundamental questions were being asked in farmhouse kitchens, ministerial meetings and editorial pages: Is agriculture too intensive? Can it be "greener"? Does British farming have a future at all? For some, the answer to the last question is no. The crisis has proved so costly that policymakers and even many in agriculture are beginning to think that livestock farming may go the way of the coal mines. A death sentence for the sector may be premature, especially in Cumbria, where agriculture has shaped the physical landscape for as long as it has been part of the economic one. Many farmers say they're ready for change, if government is.
Clearly, something must change. Seven months after the British government first confirmed the outbreak, the livestock death toll has risen to over 5 million sheep, cattle, pigs and goats. The slaughter continues in Cumbria, one of the hardest-hit counties, and in neighboring Northumberland, where a new outbreak last week confounded a community that thought it had defeated the disease. The economic tally so far includes $550 million in foregone farm exports, $3 billion in tourism losses and $1.5 billion in government compensation for farmers.
Even before the crisis, agriculture here was costly. For a host of reasons, many farmers couldn't survive off the fat of the unprofitable land if not for E.U. subsidies. But, says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, "our policies are still substantially focused on producing food at any cost," including the environmental. Before the cull wiped out his live- stock, Temple, for example, could claim per-animal subsidies under a system known as headage. This year, a ewe would have been worth $15. The problem with headage is that it simply "creates incentive for farmers to get more and more animals," says Jean-Franĉois Hulot, head of the European Commission's rural development unit for Britain. With annual income for a typical family farm averaging $12,000, some farmers stock more animals than the land can support.
There have been baby steps toward reform. Agenda 2000, a set of policy tweaks now being implemented by the E.U., says that some grants for farmers in "less favored" areas, such as Cumbria, will be paid per hectare rather than per animal. That's a start. But more radical reform is needed. Temple cares about the impact of grazing on the Cumbrian fells, but he's even more worried about providing for his family. Says he: "If they gave subsidies based on scenery, we'd be millionaires."
Not a bad idea, actually. There is a third agricultural way that balances farmers' economic needs with the concerns of environmentalists. "Farmers will do what's made available to them," says Lois Mansfield, principal lecturer in environmental management at the University of Central Lancashire's Cumbria campus. They'll take enthusiastic advantage of opportunities to venture into high-value organic farming, tourism and other land-friendly activities but only if there's money in it. John Angus, the rare farmer who didn't grow up farming, will soon find out if there is. He lost 1,000 sheep and 25 cattle in the culls. "I plan to reduce numbers a bit and try for a managed habitat grant," he says. Two holiday cottages on his farm will also help provide income.
Essex University's Pretty thinks farmers should be paid for "public goods" any beneficial byproducts of agriculture they generate. That includes the famous Lake District landscape, which depends on hungry sheep keeping the fields green and neatly manicured. In Switzerland, bigger payouts go to those who farm responsibly and produce such public benefits as alpine meadow used by skiers in winter and animal habitat on the edges of their fields.
Many green groups, also convinced that conservation and agriculture aren't mutually exclusive, are offering advice on how to pursue both. John Metcalfe, a farming adviser for the National Trust, a conservation charity that owns 95 farms in Cumbria, is urging farmers, including Temple, to diversify as well as to consider stocking levels carefully. "Now more than ever," he says, "they are listening." Says Nick Mason of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: "We have to make what short-term gains we can while we wait for policy to catch up."
Never one to wait around for government, nature has already put on a show. Unencumbered by cattle and pesticides, the fields burst with such plants as knapweed, cottonflower and devil's-bit scabious once commonplace but lately suppressed in heavily farmed areas. Buttercups carpet unused pastures, and even orchids and rare ferns are flourishing. An unused field would have as many as 30 kinds of grass and support an abundance of animal life. When grazed, groomed and fertilized it has just two or three varieties. "Plants are opportunists," says Mansfield. "This year the seeds poked their noses up and realized, 'Nobody's going to eat me.'" Likewise, when hayfields went unmowed, small mammals and birds moved in. Environmentalists say with balanced grazing such biodiversity could thrive alongside livestock. But, says Mason, "if you're a skylark, the fact that there's usually a great big machine coming through with a blade makes it impossible to raise a family."
For small farmers, it's that big machine from Brussels coming through with a check that has made it possible to raise a family. Most farmers say they're conservationists at heart, so shaking up the subsidy structure would suit them just fine. "We don't want to rape the countryside," says Peter Allen, a 17th-generation farmer who is thinking about putting his fells farm into a habitat regeneration program. "Man has a relationship with both livestock and nature, and if you upset the balance, it just won't work."
In Brussels as in Cumbria, change is neither swift nor easy. The upside to that conservatism is a gritty determination to keep farming alive. Flocks have grazed the fells for centuries some say for more than a millennium and neither wnor Brussels will change that. Walking near his farm in Bampton Grange, Peter Allen hears a crow's raucous caw. "We shouldn't be listening to that," he says. "We should be hearing cattle mooing." He's not sure how long it will take him to restock fully. Maybe five years, perhaps 10. But eventually, the animals will be back, though perhaps in reduced numbers, with a chorus of moos and bleats to fill the silence of the lambs.