Thursday, 4 April 2013

Woolly PR

There’s a brief respite from sheep presence in the enclosure as they get their annual break to coincide with lambing.

Two escaped sheep were near the car park today. I couldn’t tell whether these had come from the other side of the Hathersage Road or were left behind when the others were taken off the Blacka enclosure. If the latter then that’s happened in previous years when ewes gave birth on the moors unaided and behaved as free spirits, wandering around as they will.

Looking at the news over the last week it’s noticeable again that the farming industry generally gets pretty favourable media coverage.  Journos like nothing more than an off-the-shelf narrative they can reach down and dust off whenever a situation arises. It’s a lot easier than looking beyond the surface.  At the moment it’s hill farmers who are ‘suffering’, and in recent weeks news editors have been sending their photographers out with instructions to bring back pictures of sheep being dug out of snow drifts because, as they believe, that’s what their readers like to believe is happening, especially if they were brought up on the strip cartoon of Black Bob in the Dandy Comic.

Apparently many sheep kept on hillsides far from the farmhouse have perished in some of the severest weather for decades. Very sad indeed.  This does not happen every spring but it’s the sort of story that’s cropped up regularly every so many years during my lifetime and the media cover it the same way each time. The story’s  one of the heroic efforts of the farmer/shepherd bravely tramping through snow (nowadays he could be on a quad bike- not quite the same thing) and mourning the loss of precious ewes as if he was on first name terms with each one.  And there will be cases where the distress is sincere.

But as somebody who’s looked after farm animals in bad weather I always wonder at such times what we’re doing putting live animals out into remote areas when I see many under-used green fields often with one or two ponies only in them and very conveniently placed for the nearby farmhouse.  As I don’t eat lambs I’ve been careful not to be sanctimonious about those who do because that includes many people I like and don’t wish to offend.  But what is really happening needs some proper exposure not least for the reason that there’s a publicity machine behind a lot of these stories that’s orchestrated by the NFU and their PR friends including many in the media. Its aim is to present a distorted, fictional and positive side to the farmer in this case the one that puts his flock on the hills and lets them get on with it. The ‘lot of the poor hill farmer that we get from the BBC’s Farming Today,  from Countryfile on TV and other media should be looked at more closely and critically. There may be deserving cases but so there are in other sectors that get little support from the hardliners who subscribe to the Countryside Alliance and other parts of the landowning lobby. Why does this one industry get its own daily programme on Radio 4 usually with uncritical coverage, plus its own soap opera, The Archers , when many areas of national life get hardly a mention? And this has been going on for generations! What would have been the outcome in the 80s if there had been a regular soap about miners for example? But that’s taking us into other waters. Still…..?

The truth is that sheep farming on the hills is mostly not what it’s presented as, so here's another view: The self-sacrificing heroic farmer went out with crooks and shepherd’s smocks. I’ve watched as sheep have been left out on the hills for over a week without food in serious weather conditions because little if any attempt was made to reach them. I know that sheep with moderate problems do not get treated by the vet and are often just left to die. I’ve seen numerous dead sheep out on the hills which could have survived with a bit of attention. Sheep are often put onto land many miles from where the farmer lives with no thought for their welfare.  Lambs are put on trucks facing hours of journey time to slaughter and even across the sea in desperate conditions.  I’m convinced that farmers responsible for sheep on some land I know are only approximately aware how many sheep they have and certainly don’t bother to check whether any are missing.

Then there’s the hypocrisy that goes with farmers advocating  the persecution and culling of wildcreatures on the grounds that they might cause such problems as road  accidents while the animals they themselves are responsible for are all over the road because elementary checks are not made on fences and gates – if indeed they are visited more than once a week. And don’t forget that these same farmers are in receipt of considerable sums of money through farming subsidies and many get agri-environment money as well.  And at least one of the farmers who’ve grazed sheep on some of the public land around here have been decidedly offhand in regard to animal welfare, one grazier having been prosecuted twice. How many others are not far behind that threshold? How many times have walked past sheep bones as I wandered over the local moors?

I’ve no doubt that hill farming can be tough at times but that can also be said of many occupations. I simply ask why it deserves to get such favourable media coverage when sectors of national life hardly get a mention. Perhaps we should take a lesson from the recent focus on nursing, accepting that simply being a nurse does not mean you’re an angel, therefore must be accountable. So what farmers do should get more scrutiny. They are responsible for their animals and should be expected to behave accordingly and make decisions that do not put them at unnecessary risk.


Anonymous said...

Hi do you know who owns the sheep on houndkirk i saw eight dead onesin a dip just off houndkirk road

Blacka Blogger said...

The people to contact are the National Trust who manage for Sheffield City Council (via Kier!). Their grazier may have changed recently but they will know. It used to be Robinson of Bradfield.
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