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Follow us for updates of life, food & wildlife on the farm here in the Lower Derwent Valley, Yorkshire.

By Rosewood Farm, Aug 16 2017 02:11AM

Welcome news has arrived this week that Michael Gove has announced government plans to make CCTV compulsory in all English abattoirs. Many people are rejoicing at this news after many years of campaigns from by groups such as the British Veterinary Association and Compassion in World Farming, that it will raise animal welfare standards in abattoirs but I’m more than a little concerned.

One thing I’m not concerned about is the way our animals are handled when they are killed. We are lucky to have not one but two small abattoirs that can butcher our livestock without ever leaving the Lower Derwent Valley. The larger of the two, at Escrick, already has CCTV installed that you can see on screens when you walk in but it is a longer journey away from the farm by road as it involves a river crossing. The closer of the two is literally a stone’s throw away from the fields where our animals graze, and the handling of the animals is nothing short of excellent, so I don’t forsee any problem with CCTV being monitored here. In fact the abattoir is so small that you stand more chance of missing any wrong-doing by looking at a screen than you do watching what is happening immediately at the end of your nose.

Monitoring of the slaughter process is a significant and increasing cost
Monitoring of the slaughter process is a significant and increasing cost

My worries, however, are not to do with CCTV per se, but the cumulative effect of an increasing regulatory burden on small abattoirs. Our business of rearing beef and lamb from the grasslands of the Yorkshire Ings relies upon local butchers who can handle small numbers of animals. Increased travelling times are not good for the animal, nor are they good for the viability of these grasslands. When slaughtering cattle we have a trip to take the animals, another the next day to collect the offal, a third when we deliver trays and a fourth when we collect the meat after hanging. Moving the abattoir out of the valley therefore has an effect equal to four times the distance away from the farm. As we travel locally anyway to check animals and generally go about our daily lives the added travel is negligible, but the further away the abattoir is, the less viable local food becomes.

The news of a fire at Scotland’s only large scale pig abattoir highlights the problem with having fewer, larger businesses to handle all of our food. The facilities at Brechin were state of the art, newly refurbished for better animal handling and welfare. Unfortunately this was of no advantage when the abattoir closed due to fire damage and the animals instead found themselves travelling an extra 300 miles to the nearest abattoir able to take that number of animals. I’m sure that few animal welfare organisations would say that a journey of 300 miles is a positive thing, but it is being repeated on a smaller and less noticeable scale around the country every time an abattoir closes.

Abattoir closures mean longer journeys for livestock
Abattoir closures mean longer journeys for livestock

The cost of CCTV is not an insurmountable sum for any business, and even these proposals are more about collection of evidence than additional monitoring but it is an added cost nonetheless. Abattoirs have experienced large but incremental increases in regulation over the years that go largely unnoticed by the public, CCTV is probably the most public-centric of these regulations. Many of the regulations are implemented with sound reasoning behind them and also represent a relatively small costs to the business, but they all play a part in the viability of small businesses.

You may say that if a business’ income is so marginal that a simple piece of legislation is enough to make it unviable then they shouldn’t be in business in the first place. Unfortunately this measure only addresses the financial viability of the service. It’s of little comfort to us as we depend upon the provision of those services in order to continue farming in the valley. The economies of scale would make it even less viable for us to set up our own abattoir on the farm, and we’d still be faced with the same level of regulation as the people who have been slaughtering animals in the village since 1890.

In 1985 Britain had 1000 abattoirs, today that number has been reduced by 4/5ths - a consequence largely of a major increase in the cost of meat hygiene inspections, brought about by EU legislation in the early 1990’s. The cost of setting up a new abattoir remains prohibitively high at £1-1.5 million, placing the future of UK livestock farming in real jeopardy in many parts of the country today. It’s little wonder that those who wish to see the end of livestock farming are celebrating the prospect of increased regulation for abattoirs - it's a clear indication of the threat to our food sovereignty & further degradation of food security.

Small abattoirs maintain local food sovereignty
Small abattoirs maintain local food sovereignty

Many people congratulate us on the work we do at Rosewood, from conservationists keen to encourage rare species of wildlife to animal welfarists seeking to encourage the farming of animals outdoors, but it’s important to remember that without sales of meat, we couldn’t achieve what we do. The importance of our small abattoirs and butchers cannot be overstated - they are as vital to the maintenance of these wildlife rich habitats as we are, and the key to the future of this traditional floodplain landscape.

I do not oppose the principle of animal welfare assurances such as CCTV being installed in abattoirs at all, I merely seek assurance that the added cost and inconvenience will not be borne by the small businesses on which we depend. The good news is that these proposals are open to consultation for six weeks so if you are a farmer, butcher or concerned member of the public interested in animal welfare I urge you to take part and support my calls for these assurances. Let this not become an opportunity for the government to further damage our ability to produce and sell food locally, with the environment at the forefront. The consultation closes on the 21st September 2017 and you can comment on the proposals here.

By Rosewood Farm, Jun 4 2017 09:54PM

You may remember my blog back in January, detailing my concerns about David Attenborough’s excellent series, Planet Earth II. I also mentioned how we didn’t catch the whole series when aired and I particularly wanted another chance to see my favourite habitat and episode from the whole series; Grasslands. The opportunity came when I selflessly invested in the DVD along with a subscription to BBC Wildlife magazine for my wife’s Christmas present.

Despite working alongside it day in, day out, I much prefer reading all about the wildlife I see right here on my doorstep. The Lower Derwent Valley is home to such a rich diversity of mammal, bird, and insect life as a result of being managed continuously in a very traditional way for more than 1000 years. All of these animals depend upon the flood meadows, pastures and woodlands that make up the most complete example of a semi-natural floodplain ecosystem left in the UK, and I feel that it continues to be a much under-appreciated landscape.

The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows
The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows

The June edition of Wildlife magazine didn’t disappoint me, with an article by BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham dedicated to wildflower meadows. As Chris says, up to 98% of our natural grasslands have already gone in the space of just 50 years. I highlighted this in my last blog, about how these High Nature Value grasslands are very special. What makes Rosewood Farm extra special is that 95% of the 450 acres we farm are traditional, species-rich meadows.

Meadows are currently missing their champion - both veganism & reduced meat consumption are on trend with many celebrities at the moment and this is bad news for our wildflower meadows and grazing livestock. As a result, with fewer animals on farms, meadows have lost their reason for being and are instead being turned over by the plough to grow the foods that people demand more of.

But why have other farmers given them up?

In tough economic times, farmers have to weigh up the value of the grass produced from these meadows against the cost of time and fuel turning them into hay and grazing them. In better times for farming, more intensive cropping elsewhere may have subsidised, to a degree, the work but now it’s much harder to justify continuing to do something that you know represents an added cost to your business.

A couple of things changed for farmers in the post war years that made mono-cropping easier and altered the fortunes of traditional meadows. The first was the availability of selective herbicides in 1945. You are probably familiar with the most notorious of herbicides - Monsanto’s RoundUp, which kills any plant it touches (unless the plant is genetically modified to withstand it). Instead selective herbicides work by allowing certain plants to be killed whilst leaving the crop unharmed. By eliminating competition from other plants, the crop thrives and any fertilisers applied feed only the crop and not the ‘weeds’.

The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow
The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow

The second change was the invention of the perforated plastic drainage pipe in the late 1950’s. This made drainage of farmland far cheaper and easier than ever before and as a result land that was once only good for damp-tolerant perennial plants such as grasses can now grow a whole variety of annual cultivated crops.

Continuing with the article, my hopes were built up when I read the line ‘the only way we can hope to preserve these species-rich places is…’. However, hope turned to dismay at an opportunity lost as he continued ‘ visiting and celebrating them’. I’m all for spreading the word about how important grasslands are to wildlife and to us all, but the only way, seriously? I think not. The best way we can preserve meadows in the long term is to maintain their value and continue the traditional use that created them in the first place - with grazing animals.

Breaking with my habit of only reading about our local wildlife, I moved next to another article in the same magazine titled ‘Of Bison & Burgers’, which was all about how the demise of the both the wild bison of North America and the Great Plains on which they grazed. This resonated with me as it sounded very much like the loss of traditional grasslands from the previous article. However, the author of this piece proposed a very different solution for the preservation of wild bison - eating them!

The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains
The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains

I didn’t realise until the very end that I had been reading an article by Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming, but I felt that he had grasped the crux of the problem far better than Chris Packham had. If we are to preserve a landscape, and the wildlife within it, influenced by man for millennia, it is wishful thinking to expect a totally hands-off approach to achieve the same results. This is what they have found in America’s Yellowstone National Park, one of the few remaining places you can still find wild bison, which culls the bison to avoid them becoming over populated and suffering due to lack of grazing.

Philip also highlighted another crucial issue - the fact that whenever a solution like eating wild bison becomes popular, a whole host of cheaper pseudo-versions spring up to take advantage of the ethical reputation of the name without going to the bother of supplying the genuine article. This has happened too in the UK, when ‘grassfed’ beef became the latest ethical cuisine. The problem for the consumer is that 100% grassfed can mean anything from our 1000-year old hay meadows to the latest varieties of mono-cultured ryegrasses sprayed with liquid nitrogen fertiliser and various herbicides to ensure that ‘weeds’ (or wildflowers, as we know them) don’t take hold.

Most marketeers of grassfed meat will wax lyrical about the value of traditional wildflower meadows, but how many actually feed their cattle on them?

Rosewood is all about supplying the genuine article. We have built everything around preserving our local Yorkshire landscape of wildflower meadows by turning back the clock on cattle farming. This starts with breeding cattle of the right size that can traverse the damp ground damaging neither the soils nor the plants. Careful management also ensures that our pastures provide the ideal habitat for insect and birdlife that once existed in abundance, before the advent of pesticides. Our cattle feed only on grasses & wildflowers grown without any artificial fertilisers or pesticides, including our own hay made right here on the farm.

You can celebrate our wildflower meadows and help to keep them alive. Throw a party or go for a picnic but don’t forget that the food on your plate has the biggest impact upon the landscape around you. We’ll happily keep preserving the meadows here at Rosewood for as long as you keep buying the beef.

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