Country Life: The dark side to strawberries

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The Independent Online

There is nothing to write about the fox-hunting debate that hasn't already been written, except, perhaps, aaaaiiiieeee!

There is nothing to write about the fox-hunting debate that hasn't already been written, except, perhaps, aaaaiiiieeee! That is the best way I can register a screech of frustration in print, and it represents frustration at the parliamentary hours and column inches that have been expended, and doubtless all the police time yet to be expended, on a practice that is a very long way from being the most immoral or harmful thing going on in the countryside.

It beggars belief, in fact, that factory farming, in which chickens and pigs spend their entire lives in utterly wretched conditions, has not yet felt the weight of legislative reform, while the manner in which foxes are killed after perfectly contented lives is the subject of furious national debate - even though everyone knows that foxes have to be culled somehow. Of course, what drives the anti-hunting lobby mad, to some extent understandably, is that fox-hunting gives people pleasure. And not people like them, either, but people in tweeds. Hard as the Countryside Alliance has tried, it has not broken down the misguided perception that fox-hunting is a pursuit for toffs.

Still, there are some on the anti-hunting side who don't care whether or not the names of hunting folk are as double-barrelled as their shotguns. For them it is wrong to derive enjoyment from a chase, the objective of which is the death of a living creature. End of story. But it shouldn't be the end of the story. Factory-farming demeans humanity far more than fox-hunting. That it provides more jobs and makes more people more money ought to be immaterial, but isn't, alas.

Now, into this emotive stew about cruelty to animals let me throw the simple English strawberry. It is hard for those of us who are getting worked up about intensive strawberry farming to make much of an impact on those who are fixated on bushy-tailed foxes, or even curly-wurly-tailed pigs. Yet the relatively new practice of growing strawberries under acres of polythene tunnels is blighting the landscape, devastating the soil, and ruining the lives of people who live nearby. It is infinitely more harmful than fox-hunting, unless you're a fox, I suppose. All of which might be marginally more acceptable if these mass-produced supermarket strawberries were delicious. But they taste of almost nothing.

Here in Herefordshire, strawberry farming is doing untold damage, both aesthetic and organic, to the environment. Near us, just outside the village of Stoke Prior, 150 acres of farmland have been leased by a company called S&A Davies, which has already covered large tracts of the county in polythene. A vast strawberry farm is being rapidly installed, with unpleasant implications not only for the people of Stoke Prior, whose peaceful summers will now reverberate to the sound of lorries crashing along the narrow lanes, but also the local wildlife. To rid the soil of wilt, which makes the strawberries even more inedible than they turn out to be anyway, it has to be sterilised. To do this, a chemical called chloropicrin is often pumped into the soil. Chloropicrin is very closely related to the mustard gas used in the First World War, and is apparently to be banned in Britain from 2007. Why not now? It kills all earthworms and micro-organisms, and while wiping out the possibility of wilt, also wipes out the essential goodness from the soil.

Although chloropicrin has not been used at Stoke Prior (most producers try to avoid using it as, apart from any other considerations, it costs up to £1,000 an acre to administer), it is likely that other chemicals will be. Nobody knows what danger they could pose to the otters, great crested newts and white-clawed crayfish that live in the area, not to mention the more common forms of wildlife. English Nature, which could at least force S&A Davies to conduct an environmental survey, has been too toothless to do so. The local MP, Bill Wiggin, has failed even to reply to a letter sent to him a month ago by alarmed villagers. And Herefordshire Council still has not put in place any effective controls to limit the spread of polytunnels - unlike Shropshire.

As in the fox-hunting debate, there are civil liberties issues at stake. One concerns the right of a farmer to make a decent living. But all the campaigners are asking for is that some sensible restraint be applied to farming under polythene. In the meantime, they have had lots of "Welcome to Herefordshire" postcards produced, which feature several of the county's finest assets, including Hereford Cathedral, under an enormous polythene roof. A bit hysterical, perhaps, but then hysteria, as we know from the hunting furore, is sometimes the only weapon left.

What's in a name?

My rather whimsical item a couple of weeks ago about Herefordshire place names being deployed in fiction as the names of people, evidently captured readers' imaginations. My thanks in particular to Maggy and David Williams who inform me - I wish I could say remind me, I would sound so much better-read - that Ada Leintwardine and Lord Vowchurch both appear in Anthony Powell's A Dance To The Music Of Time. Thanks too to David Gorvett, who suggests that Edvin Loach and Edwyn Ralph, neighbouring villages just north of Bromyard, were actually cousins who fought each other to death over a beautiful young woman. I'd like to think she was called Dilwyn Common.