Farmer battles to keep herd

SELBORNE IN Hampshire is as good as place as any to locate the very heart of the English countryside.

The rich pasture was examined in naturalist Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne. Written in the 18th century, it described one of Britain's most beautiful corners, and today Oak Tree farm at Selborne is a wildlife haven, teeming with birds, flowers and insect life.

But David Ashcroft, the farmer, who believes fervently in the farmer's role as custodian of the countryside, now believes that work is under threat.

This year he expects to take home virtually no income from the 100-head herd of South Devon suckler cows he has spent 11 years building up. At present income levels, he will gross about pounds 20,000 from his livestock enterprise, but will have to pay pounds 5,000 for straw bedding, pounds 5,000 to a contractor for cereals and hay crops to feed the animals, pounds 1,500 on vet bills and pay for running costs out of the remaining pounds 9,500. "It won't leave anything over for living," he said.

His animals are worth something like a third of what they were two years ago and the temptation grows daily to disperse the herd completely and plough up the lovely grassland for cereals. "I don't want to plough it up, but if I look at it cold-heartedly as a businessman, that's what I would do," he said. "My income would rise dramatically and my labour input would drop dramatically.

"I'd certainly be able to have a holiday, which is something I don't get at the moment as I can't afford to employ any staff. I'd also liberate a lot of money tied up in stock and machinery. Considering my current income is nil, it's very tempting."

If he did so Mr Ashcroft, who has two children, would have to rip out or reduce some of his hedges as the fields are too small for a combine harvester to move around.

"I would hate to do that as they are a feature of the farm and there are quite a few badgers in them," he said.

In previous years he has planted hundreds of trees, and a further pounds 1,000 was earmarked for environmental work on the farm this year - but not any more. There is no spare cash.

"The heart of the countryside is livestock and that heart is going out of it," he said. "Kick somebody hard enough and they'll give up."

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