Foot and Mouth disease is back in Europe and ports are at risk

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WARM but windy weather feels more like early March than February, but the mild weather is certainly waking up the plants and greening up the grass.

Wild daffodils have joined snowdrops on the roadside at Tillington, and many other bulbs are sending green swords shooting up through the soil. It is remarkably dry which is very good news, as the clay at Plaistow does not begin to warm up until it has first dried out a bit.

I might as well apply a little fertilizer to the grass at Tillington in the next week or so, just to get things going, and provide an early bite for the yearling heifers which are on the last paddock of the last autumn grass.

We are also muckspreading and ploughing the last of the maize ground at Tillington, which is turning over very nicely in excellent conditions. We are thinking of growing some special varieties for our anaerobic digester, but I am not all that convinced that they offer much more than a heavy-yielding late variety of maize. I do fear that the danger of lodging, where the whole field could go down in October if we had some rough weather, with the very much taller ‘bio-maize’ being more vulnerable.

n It is ten years since the terrible Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in this country ( there was also of course the small outbreak in 2007 involving the government laboratories in Pirbright, Surrey).

The huge funeral pyres of 2001 left a terrible memory, with most people never wanting to see this again. Is the government better prepared today? Yes it is, and the restrictions on movements between farms would make a very big difference should such an event take place again.

Defra undertook a through of how they would cope a few weeks ago and unlike 2001, there are preparations in place.

Foot and Mouth disease is now in Bulgaria, having crossed the border from Turkey. It is thought that it infected the wildlife and wild boars have spread the disease in the vast forests, and by feeding on the same ground as outdoor pigs in Bulgaria, have passed infection on to farm animals.

The threat to this country is as usual through our ports and airports, and unlike say Australia and New Zealand, the measures in place are not nearly as tough.

Government talk of balancing the risk against inconvenience for travellers, but some meat in sandwiches or other forms of food, carelessly discarded, could be all that it needed.

I do think that we could at the very least step up the campaign to keep FMD out when we know that it is present in one of the EU countries.

n The debate over the decline in song-bird numbers has sharpened again as various bodies fail to agree on the rate of decline, never mind the cause.

The charity Songbird Survival is carrying out control measures on farms in Hampshire, Warwickshire and Herefordshire, where they will cull magpies, crows, jays and other corvids, in order to lower the burden of predatory activity on songbirds.

This has attracted much attention and comment by RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology and Animal Aid amongst others, all of whom believe that the decline in songbirds is cause by modern farming practices and human encroachment.

Others disagree and the grey squirrel is also charged with predation of both eggs and young chicks, putting it in the same camp as the corvids.

The sparrow hawk is another culprit and takes about 500,000 birds a year, which in the scheme of things is not such a large figure, when the devastation by cats is taken into account.

Cats take 300 million animals each year, 75 per cent of which are small birds, and, unlike the sparrow hawk, do not depend on such creatures for their food - most of which is bought for them!

Hitting large class windows and conservatories, being hit by cars, adverse weather conditions and disease, (some of which can be spread by bird tables) all take their toll on small birds.

Some people are adamant that predators are a huge part of the problem, which have thrived recently, increasing in numbers, benefiting from mankind and activities.

They point to the huge amount of money and effort going into conservation, especially on farms, with little or no effect on songbirds, while other creatures such as butterflies, voles, insects and flowers benefit greatly.

Tens of thousands of kilometres of hedgerow have been planted since the 1970s, goodness knows how many trees (there are more trees in this country now than there were 200 years ago), with an increase in broadleaf woodland cover, and £500 million a year paid to farmers to provide habitat for wildlife.

With other animals and birds benefiting, why is the songbird still in decline? Has the development of habitat also benefited the predators?

Is so, do we employ wildlife management? Give that urban areas certainly increase the number of predators, and farmers are ever more specialised these days and are less inclined to control vermin, we have a problem.

Persuading conservationists towards management of wildlife through shooting and trapping is a much bigger mountain to climb.

With much of our entertainment on television these days involving wildlife and nature, it is difficult to persuade citizens that some of these creatures need to be managed in order to maintain balance. Unless of course one is focusing on the rat.

The rat, which comes very close to everyone, often sharing shelter and food, is somehow a victim of bad PR. No one wants to see the place over run with rats, although, if studied, they have a very structured and orderly life.

There is a White Paper on the environment being prepared by government, which will be discussed in the spring.

With a debate that strays from outright denial that any management need take place, to the RSPB claiming that pheasant shoots contribute to the problem by introducing large numbers of birds to the wild, where only a third are shot, this debate is set to continue for a long time.