'Hussars' charge into battle for friendlier farming: Richard Smith meets a group of environmentalists and farmers campaigning for viable agriculture

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The Independent Online
THE GAY HUSSARS went into battle at the Royal Show when it opened at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, yesterday, in a determined bid to ensure that environmentally friendly farming becomes a commercial success.

The manifesto of the eight- strong alliance of farmers and environmental campaigners, which takes its name from a Hungarian restaurant in Soho, was outlined by Jonathan Porritt, former director of Friends of the Earth, and echoed by Sir Simon Gourlay, former president of the National Farmers' Union.

The group says it has been brought together by a countryside crisis caused by increasing commercial pressures on farmers, a rise in rural unemployment and continuing damage to landscape and wildlife habitats. It is calling for EU subsidies to be directed away from unlimited production support, and for set-aside to be phased out. Instead, it wants to ensure the prosperity of agriculture based on environmentally sensitive farming techniques.

Other targets are to enhance the landscape and reduce pollution, and to preserve traditional meadows, woodlands, hedges, dry-stone walls, wetlands and wildlife habitats.

The group also wants economic regeneration in rural areas, including a focus on village life, transport needs and reducing poverty and unemployment. 'One thing that brings us together is real burning anger over the misdirecting of public money and agricultural policy today,' Mr Porritt said. 'Giving away public money for things the public don't support is suicidal in the long-term - you can see the gradual increase in public indignation about set-aside and farmers have to live with this every day. There has to be a different direction taken to enable farmers to play a fuller role in the community.'

Sir Simon Gourlay, who runs an 850-acre cereal, beef and sheep farm at Knighton, Powys, said that UK farmers received pounds 3bn in subsidies each year. 'My big concern is that the abuse of resources is phenomenal. There is a lot of money being spent on agricultural support through the EU and I would say 50 per cent of it is a misuse of public funds. They are providing us with a firm direction but it is the wrong direction. They have put farming in a strait- jacket when we should be responding to market forces with environmental sensitivity.'

Another group member, Marie Skinner, has been forced to accept a cash loss in favour of environmental gain at her 500-acre sugar-beet and cereal farm in Norfolk. She converted a four- acre field used for cereal production into a wildflower meadow. 'It looks wonderful and is now a haven for oxeye daisies, sainfron and all sorts of wildlife,' she said. 'But when we were growing cereals we were given a subsidy of pounds 65 an acre each year - now we have not only lost the income from the cereal but the subsidy as well. We did this for personal pleasure but it wouldn't be viable on a large scale and the present subsidy system is a negative incentive for us to do something people want.'

The traditional image of British farming life is being shattered by a disturbing increase in stress, depression and suicide. A new re port, released at the show by the Duke of Westminster, shows that farming communities have suffered untold pressures in recent years - especially as a result of financial problems.

Nearly 600 male farmers and farmworkers have taken their own lives since 1979 - twice the national average. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among UK farmers, and among farmers' wives it is 20 per cent above the national average.

Nick Read, editor of the report, Rural Stress: Positive Action In Partnership, said: 'Farmers have access to the means - 40 per cent of all farm suicides are with a shotgun. Isolation is a major factor, along with passing on a farm which has been in the same family for generations. Many sons and daughters don't want to farm now which makes a lot of farmers wonder what they have been working towards.'

(Photograph omitted)

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