Hares, beavers, rolling down a hill – and the fear of what’s coming


Hares don’t seem to become an issue, reflects Dorset NFU county chairman George Hosford, but beavers (and, surprisingly, Jeremy Clarkson) pose far tougher questions – and there don’t seem to be any easy answers
The brown hare is Britain’s fastest land mammal, clocking speeds of up to 40mph. The expression to ‘kiss the hare’s foot’, meaning ‘to be late’, alludes to the hare’s great speed and the notion that, if you hesitate, it will have gone and all that will be left is a footprint.
Image: Alan Wicks

Seven or eight hares constitutes grazing pressure equivalent to how many sheep? When does the hare population shift from “I like to see a few of them about” to “I might have to consider doing something about them”?
But when our friend Alan Wicks can produce photos like the above, I just want to celebrate. They look like a bunch of greyhounds racing hell-for-leather around a track, but what would the hares be chasing? A stuffed whippet on a piece of string?
I think they are just doing it for the sheer fun. Alan tells me that he has seen them rough and tumbling in a heap sometimes. I know that some areas suffer from much larger numbers of hares than we do, and that action does indeed need to be taken, but here, hare numbers have been low to modest for as long as I can remember. What is the key factor that limits them? There is, after all, no shortage of food. Has it been due to the presence of too many predators of the leverets, like buzzards and crows? Or is it that we have been too successful in controlling small weeds in crops, which I have long understood are vital for the survival of young ground-nesting birds? Surely a young hare can graze on wheat from the day it’s born? As farmers it is very difficult to get the right balance between a few weeds sufficient for skylark and lapwing chicks, and a wipe-out of a crop due to runaway weed infestation. The chemicals we use are very efficient at their job, and if you use reduced rates you risk encouraging resistance to the sprays in the weeds.

Beavers be damned
All too often when walking, biking or paddling along local rivers, one comes across weirs and sluice gates that are woefully neglected. How much of the flooding that so many tears are shed over – and millions of pounds spent clearing up after – could be saved if the rivers were better managed? Current river policy seems to revolve roughly around re-wilding. Oh, and let’s bung in a few beavers for good measure, there won’t be any flooding then.
How long before a dislodged beaver dam gets washed down to a dodgy old bridge, turning it into a bigger dam, causing flooding upstream, or a tsunami downstream, following its collapse?
I am sure those responsible for intelligent advanced planning have borne all this in mind before launching into the Great Beaver Release Gamble that is approaching; at least five such releases are planned for Dorset. No-one seems to operate the precautionary principle any more. There are numerous tales of beaver trouble from Scotland, where, as so often, they are ahead of us in this game, but has any notice been taken? Apologies for all the questions this month – but does anyone have any answers (oops, there’s another)? Luckily for me, I live on a hill.

Mother knows best
The school visit season has now begun, and so far in pretty co-operative weather. Sometimes a group will bring a picnic, after which they will enjoy running or rolling down a nearby hill, before resuming their tour around the farm, asking plenty of questions along the way.
Didn’t Mother always say you should let your lunch go down before such exertions?

The Eurasian beaver is native to Britain and used to be widespread in England, Wales and Scotland, but was never known in Ireland. They became extinct in the 16th century, mainly because of hunting for their fur, meat and castoreum, a secretion used in perfumes, food and medicine.
There have been more than 200 formal beaver reintroduction projects (plus numerous unofficial releases) in more than 26 European countries and their ecology and management is well-studied.

Clarkson’s got a point
Whatever you might have thought of Jeremy Clarkson in the past, since he began sharing with his huge audience the trials and tribulations of learning to farm, he has surely been a force of good for the industry. His first series from his farm Diddly Squat was highly entertaining, and brought tales so familiar to long-suffering farmers to the attention of the population at large.
His piece in the Sunday Times today, 15th May, is worth looking up (read it here – the Times has a paywall, but there’s a month free trial and it is well worth a read – Ed) – he is publicising, in his usual entertaining style, what our NFU President has been trying so hard to ram home to our wise and wonderful (apparently clueless) leaders for months, since the war began in Ukraine, about the impending crisis in food prices and availability around the world.
What he doesn’t get around to is pointing out all the micro-decisions we are making at farm level to control risk and to preserve our livelihoods, which are very likely to result in reductions in production. Speaking to many farmers it is easy to find those who have reduced their usage of fertiliser this year, accepting that output may fall. This year could be OK – many bought fertiliser at what now seems giveaway prices, and we can currently sell grain, milk and meat at prices well above where we were a year or two ago (with apologies to pig and chicken farmers). Ask about next year though and you get blank looks all round. How do we make sense of such a huge change in circumstances? Should we buy (very expensive) fertiliser for next season now, if we can get it, and back it up with cracking forward grain prices? Unfortunately that doesn’t work in the meat markets. Or do we wait and see? In terms of the environment and climate-damaging emissions, it couldn’t be a better time to rein back on fertiliser applications and test the result. With the ongoing war though, shortfalls in exports of grains from Russia and Ukraine are suggesting the opposite should be done.
At farm level, I suspect we are likely to be cautious, with production likely to fall.

Sponsored by Trethowans – Law. As it should be


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