Why the sale of cheap alcohol matters so much

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Well into March, the day is lengthening rapidly, and nature is bursting into life. I find life is pretty good at this time of year; plenty to look forward to. Better weather, turning the clocks forward, a bit of gardening, BBQs, and best of all, grassland management. I just think that managing grass is the most interesting and fascinating area of dairy farming. Grazing and silage quality and quantity are so reliant on managing the grass properly, and they are huge drivers of profitability in the milk production business. I think over the years, maize and genetics, milk yields and output, have diminished the role of the most fundamental cornerstone of British dairying; grassland.

The birds are frantically building nests and generally hauling large amounts of material, willy-nilly around the garden. I saw a blackbird in the garden the other day with so much ‘stuff’ (long grass and things) in his beak, that he could not take off! He kept running, flapping his wings, stopping and trying again, eventually after several attempts, with bits lost as the load dragged behind him on the grass, he got airborne, the load trailing in the breeze like a jet trail. One evening, a crow, with beak full of twigs, a huge bundle, narrowly missed the conservatory as he flew past; quite amazing the work rate of birds at this time of year.

I was at the British Veterinary Association dinner in London last week, and I was very interested to hear BVA President Carl Padgett, talking about animal welfare. He told us how worried the profession is about the welfare of pets. There are 700,000 rabbits for a start; real concerns about both the physical and mental welfare of these animals. Serious problems still with puppy farms, Carl told us that buying a puppy is still as easy as the weekly shopping. Their PIP (Puppy Information pack) is in the final stage of drafting, a document which should assist in looking after the welfare of dogs rather better than we do already.

I sit on several BVA committees and one of them is the ‘Ethics’ committee, where all animals are discussed. We have been involved with breeding of dogs recently, and we were very pleased to see that at last vets, very brave vets, have taken a stand, backed by the Kennel Club, to not allow certain breeds to compete in ‘Best in Group’ competitions at ‘Crufts’ last week, having failed the new veterinary checks which have been introduced to the show. The veterinary checks were introduced to ensure dogs with exaggerated features do not win prizes, making real progress by only rewarding the healthiest examples of the breed. Having shown a dog at Crufts once (!) I certainly welcome this change in attitude by the Kennel Club, and real progress will rapidly be made, as there is serious money involved in dog breeding, and winning is everything.

Not many people know that the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman wanted to be a vet; indeed her grandfather was a vet in the army. The Secretary of State now presides over Government cuts in Defra, cuts which affect all areas. I am involved in trying to see how a better service can be delivered, at a lower price; this is challenging, as it has to be at a much lower price, and will inevitably involve a transfer of cost from government to industry. Interestingly, I find that in general the veterinary profession seems less equipped to deal with change than farmers. No one likes change, but these days, status-quo is not an option.

So, the Government wants to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol, in order to curb binge drinking. In a real effort to upset the whole electorate, they are not only targeting the ‘slabs’ of cheap lager home drinkers, but the much more dangerous wine drinking middle classes. The middle classes drinking wine to excess at home is a real problem, government says, and all this boozing is costing us a fortune in the National Health. As usual these days, there is a ‘Blairite’ deal, and a target. The new pledge under the ‘Responsibility Deal’ will be unveiled within days, and the Health Secretary wants to slash one billion units of alcohol from shelves!

British Cider would be one of the hardest hit categories, which given the orchard planting and resurgence of cider making in this country, would be a real shame. Spirits would also be hit hard, which would have an effect on the substantial British production. I remember one major retailer CEO telling me a few years ago when this was first mooted, that he would report the Prime Minster to the OFT so fast his feet would not touch the ground! Predictably, lawyers are sharpening their pencils, and a legal challenge on Cameron’s plans is inevitable. The general opinion of the brewing industry is that this not going to solve the problem, that it will hit the moderate drinker and that it is probably illegal.

David Cameron, heavily influenced by the health lobby, stating that this is ‘The scandal of our society’, will not give up on this easily; a position which is easy to understand, given that MPs are head-butting each other and fighting ‘Wild West style’ in the bar at the House of Commons! Another interesting twist is that whilst other retailers are also against his plans, sensibly arguing that many consumers will go for illicit booze ‘prohibition style’, there is one which backs the Prime Minister; Tesco. CEO Richard Brashier welcoming the prospect of ‘constructive discussions’, now forgive me, but is it not within the largest retailer in the country to show leadership in putting an end to alcohol discounting; voluntarily? Others always follow Tesco. Or are there bigger fish to fry, politically, by being super supportive of the Prime Minister?

Why would Tesco care? According to the ‘Grocer’ magazine, if booze no longer acts as a foot-fall driver (jargon for encouraging more customers to shop at your store), supermarkets will pocket the extra money, or more likely subsidise something else, which is where I get very frightened indeed. It may be petrol, or a category where their margin is already very high, fruit and vegetables. If they decide to subsidise fruit and vegetables, the beleaguered farmer and grower, already hanging by a thread (which is why the retail margin is so high) will no doubt be told, more offers to our customers this week, more pain for you chum. That is why all this matters so much.

Lorayne has come up with a brilliant solution for cyclist’s safety at junctions in London. Rather than traffic lights changing from red to amber to green, why not have red, followed by flashing green with a bicycle imprinted on it, and then the green. That would give the cyclist a chance to get going before the traffic. My idea of the green with a bicycle imprinted on it followed by a green with an ambulance with a bicycle wheel sticking out of the back door, imprinted on it was dismissed.

Gwyn Jones