Letters: Perspectives on the countryside

Hedgerows are good for farmers

David Palmer and Aidan Harrison (Letters, 20 November) are right to point to the importance of hedgerow management for wildlife conservation and to the defensiveness of some farmers about declines in farmland wildlife.

I have spoken to many farmers in my area about hedgerow management and surveyed their hedges. Most are aware of the importance of hedges to wildlife, but many are unwilling to acknowledge that keeping hedges trimmed short every year severely reduces their wildlife value. Wildlife conservation has lower priority for most full-time farmers than making a living through efficient food production.

This is understandable, but unfortunately keeping hedges trimmed neat and tidy every year is seen by most as symbolic of efficient farming, and for many it is a matter of pride.

But many farmers have signed up to agri-environment schemes that encourage less frequent hedge-trimming. They tend to be smaller farms.

Several I spoke to from conventional farming backgrounds have been impressed by the increases in blossoms and fruit in their hedges and the consequent increase in birds, insects and small mammals. Let's hope that this attitude continues to spread.

Francis Kirkham, Crediton, Devon

Big declines in small birds

In Guy Smith's letter (17 November), all the birds he mentions are medium- to large-sized, not easily missed by a relatively observant farmer. Most of our declining birds are "small", notably the summer visitors. More than 40 species regularly breed here.

For example, would the casual observer even notice small summer migrants such as whinchat, spotted flycatcher, sedge warbler, reed warbler and yellow wagtail, all of which are in steep decline? Resident species such as tree sparrow, willow tit and lesser-spotted woodpecker are small birds whose populations are in free fall.

Two species of birds that have recently colonised in good numbers are the unmissable little egret, large and white, and Cetti's warbler, small, inconspicuous, so rarely sighted but equally successful.

Peter Brown, Brighton, east Sussex

No cause for an optimistic view

As not only a farmer, but an award-winning journalist, Guy Smith must know that he is comparing apples and oranges. None of the species he names as increasing is a farmland bird and, in fact, all but the woodpecker eat both carrion and other small birds. They will not have been affected by pesticides, and their increase may actually have contributed to the decline of other bird species.

Although Mr Smith now sees little egrets, farmland birds as a whole have declined by 53 per cent since 1970. Some farmland species have shown recent increases, but nearly two-thirds have shown a decrease. Whether pesticides are the root cause or one of many, Mr Smith's attempt to muddy the waters is wrong, and anecdotal evidence is beneath him.

Paula Farrell, Dover

IMF's policies are dangerous

The IMF-EU policies will not only not solve our problems but can only make them worse. Around the world there is vast experience of the consequences of the imposition of the policies of the IMF. It has left a trail of destruction, with hundreds of millions of lives driven into abject poverty and hunger.

It has taken decades for countries in Latin America to recover from the ravages of the policies imposed on them by the IMF, and it is only by rejecting those policies that any recovery has been achieved. Much of the improvement in the past decade is due to the emergence of radical governments committed to putting the people first and not the banks and finance houses.

It is clear that all the main political parties are content to allow the EU and IMF to decide the future of our people and the destiny of our country. They have all agreed, to a greater or lesser extent, that whatever the European Union wants and needs for Ireland they will comply.

Unless there is a radical political departure and the development of a people's alternative economy, tens of thousands of people will leave our country, and tens of thousands more will be driven into poverty. There has to be a better way.

Paul Doran, Clondalkin, Dublin

I rely on your newspaper for informed comment to guide me, but I am confused. Ireland has a financial crisis. According to Mary Ann Sieghart (22 November), it's the fault of the euro. According to your leading article (23 November), it has nothing to do with the euro. I take it that Ms Sieghart does not write your leaders.

If it's true that Ireland's problems stem from its enthusiastic adoption of the European common currency, presumably Ms Sieghart can predict a financial crisis in Portugal, Spain, and possibly Italy in the near future. If federal currencies are bad, then surely she should pursue that line of thought to its logical conclusion and advocate the dismantling of all federal currencies. Let's start with the big one, the US dollar, which serves 50 states.

The United States is a federation of geographically dispersed states of widely differing size, population, population density, natural resources and economies. Is there any evidence to suggest that the US federal currency was responsible for the financial meltdown of recent years?

Following Ms Sieghart's advice, the US should dismantle its federal currency and let each state issue its own currency and manage its own economy. What value would she put upon the Wyoming dollar versus the Rhode Island dollar?

Should Ireland withdraw from the euro? Should Montana withdraw from the US dollar? If the answer to either question is yes then surely the answer to the other question must also be yes. Who volunteers to take that message to Washington or Wall Street?

Jon Summers, Stogumber, Somerset

Could I offer a riposte to what seems to have become a universal assumption, joined by Mary Ann Sieghart, that the UK was right to stay out of the euro?

The travails of Ireland are quoted in support of this view (carefully forgetting that non-euro Iceland had even greater travails). If the UK had joined, it would have been the second-biggest economy among the members at the time, with a correspondingly major say in the decisions of the European Central Bank; in other words the ECB's interest rate would have been closer to that of the Bank of England than has actually been the case.

But the euro's critics make another mistake, namely to assume that interest rates are the only weapon of economic management, when taxation policy can be just as effective in stimulating or damping demand. For example, if a euro member ideally requires a lower interest rate than the ECB permits, it can achieve the same result by cutting taxes, and operate conversely if it requires a higher rate.

Alan Pavelin, Chislehurst, Kent

Your editorial exonerates the euro from any blame in respect of the Irish financial crisis. But your analysis is one-dimensional, focusing only on the euro exchange rate against other currencies. You neglect to mention the "one-size-fits-all" interest-rate policy that comes with the euro package. It is this aspect which lies at the root of many of the problems that Ireland confronts today.

Low interest rates designed to stimulate the German economy were ill-suited to an expanding Irish economy and led directly to the asset-price inflation experienced in Ireland over recent years.

Perhaps the Irish goverment and regulators should have addressed this issue, but it is noteworthy that even the UK authorities, who have the benefit of monetary independence allowing them to set interest rates appropriate to the UK economy, were unable to control the property and credit boom in the UK.

What this means is that irrespective of the bailout there remain fundamental unresolved issues within the eurozone.

Until this aspect is addressed more honestly and openly I fear we will see further problems, and the case for Britain's entry to the euro looks weaker than ever.

Tim Smith, Sevenoaks, Kent

Parent support in student protest

I take great heart from the mobilisation of young people wishing to protest against the Government's university tuition fees policy. As a father of four, with two already at university and two more hoping to follow, the affordability of a degree is going to have a great impact on my family.

But the peculiar thing about this debate is that no one seems to see the big issue: the policy does not work.

As a society, we will all pay in the end and we will have a resentful generation who may well feel no obligation or duty to society, and a large social class economically excluded from degree-level education (too poor to afford it, too rich for a grant).

The "high fees" approach will not save us any real money. First, the government lends students the fees. So where does that money come from and where is the saving? Second, when students graduate, in their first job interview, graduates should politely advise their prospective employer that it will cost a bit more in pay to take them on.

How else are they to afford the latest tech, a girlfriend/ boyfriend, a car, a deposit for a house etc and pay the government back? It may seem an abstract notion now but when the freshers of 2012 graduate, the jobs market may well be very different.

The graduate employer, having no choice, pays higher salaries and passes the cost on to its customers, us. As I said, we all pay in the end. The government gets its loan back and rakes in a bit more in tax due to higher levels of pay.

In fact, the employer may have a choice and take on overseas graduates, or Scots, as they will work for less (theoretically), and top graduates from England and Wales will work outside the EU to avoid repayment. They will come home when they are old. Is that what we want?

Nigel Hatfield, Taunton, Somerset

I have a nine-year-old grand-daughter attending a Sheffield primary school. She is highly intelligent and said by her teachers to be a joy to teach. Imagine my dismay when she told her father that when she grows up she wants to work with young children (and I believe there is no work more important), then said, "Daddy, you don't have to go to university to do that do you?" When he said, "No you don't have to but lots of people do", and asked why she was asking, she replied, "Because university is too expensive".

I am deeply saddened that a nine-year-old, listening to what is being talked about around her and in the media should be lowering her sights at such a young age. Her father was quick to reassure her but had she not voiced her fears, we would not have realised what harm was being done.

Greta Johnson, Hitchin, Hertfordshire

As a student about to be affected by the new governmental cuts, I suggest that those MPs in favour of students paying interest on their loans and paying tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year should pay for their education in arrears, including the interest they have accrued.

They will say that they have paid already for this in their years of paying tax; but so will this generation of students when we are graduates. If they truly believe that it is reasonable to pay this much for a university education, they should have no problem in stumping up the money.

After all, they have jobs and savings, which we students do not have yet, so they are better placed to pay than we are, and I would happily pay the full amount, if I could be sure that the good politicians who take care of us all had done the same.

C Harrill, Oxford

Doraine Potts (letter, 12 November) is absolutely right to say that two-year degree courses could be cheaper with no loss of standards. I taught part-time for 14 years at the private University of Buckingham, where BA courses were taught over eight 10-week terms in two years. My modules ran during the summer term – July to September – a period when most undergraduates are on long vacation.

The standard of the externally moderated Buckingham degree was absolutely equal to three-year degrees in the best UK universities. Research time was safeguarded by a rule that no teacher be required to teach in all four terms. I struggle to understand why, in these straitened times, the Buckingham model has not been widely adopted.

Dr David Smith, Clyro, Powys

I did my degree in two years, admittedly in wartime, and think I am none the worse for it. I came up to Cambridge with an entrance scholarship in January 1942, to read for the natural sciences tripos. Having taken the preliminary exam for part one of the tripos in the summer, I was permitted to skip part one and go on to part two (physics).

For this I was allowed an extra term, so I took part two in December 1943. I did most of my work during the vacations, the college paid for us to stay up, provided we gave some help with the firewatching. And I finished with a First.

Professor E H Sondheimer, London N6

France has an ugly underbelly

The nostalgic picture of France given by D J Ridley (20 November) and Mary Dejevsky really does not deserve to be maintained. I lived in France for seven years, and what struck me was the level of personal and community stress suffered by many people.

Rather than the long, lazy lunches, and relaxed attitudes, what was far more typical was a high level of mutual suspicion and tension. France has the highest use of anti-depressants in Europe, about double the rate in the UK; it also has about double the UK suicide rate, and twice the chance of death on the roads. Racial tension is severe, and in the small town where we lived in the south, drugs and gang violence crossing from Africa caused constant problems.

But we should recognise that France is actually a modern, succesful business culture: they still have a national car industry and a strong manufacturing base, higher productivity than the UK, a modern transport system, and have bought up many of our utilities.

They also have the most profitable McDonald's in Europe, which is certainly not packed out with people taking long, lazy lunches. All the builders we employed arrived on time, refused to take coffee breaks, and were remarkably hard workers. They also all expected half the fees in cash, to avoid the hated revenue department.

Holiday France is great, and Paris can be lovely if you are in the right social group, but away from the fantasies, France can be a pretty tough place to live. And most of the people really don't wear berets.

David Douce, Beccles, Suffolk

No prayers for Einstein

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown quoted Albert Einstein at length in her column about religion (Opinion, 22 November). Mysteriously, she failed to give the very next sentence from the quote, which changes the meaning quite dramatically.

Just after, "This knowledge, this feeling, is at the heart of all true religiousness", Einstein went on to say, "In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men".

Ms Alibhai-Brown may wish to reflect on another quote from the great man. "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated.

"I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly."

James Ingram, London SE1

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown appears to believe that if evils such as fascism, greed, and environmental destruction cannot be blamed on religion, we should blame them on atheism. By the same logic, we would blame democracy for all evils which do not derive from dictatorship.

Atheists are no more likely to be fascistic, greedy or environmentally destructive than theists are. Nor are they more likely to drop nuclear bombs on people.

Harry S Truman, the only person to have authorised such an attack, was a Baptist, but it would be absurd to blame Baptist teachings for the deaths and suffering caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Robert Canning, Bridge of Earn, Perth

No tanks

Collin Rossini (Letters, 15 November) says China is the place "where they run students over with tanks". While accepting there is a great deal of Sino-phobia in the media at present, I found this letter pretty poor, even by present standards. It must be noted that the student uprising in Tiananmen Square 1989 is famous for a tank not running over a student. If only it had, eh? It would have made the point all the more salient.

S T Wong, London SE23