Whatever their game, uncertainty is all farmers can count on in 2009

AS I enjoyed the festive season in rural Yorkshire with my younger daughter and family I had time to reflect on what has happened in farming over 2008.

What a year it has been. Volatility best describes the farming scene, with prices all over the place. At this time last December a lucky handful of arable farmers were able to sell quality wheat at almost of 200 per tonne. Little did the industry imagine that 12 months later the value of that same tonne would have fallen to 90.

Then fertiliser and fuel prices shot through the roof, adding very considerably to costs to the extent of rendering the growing of cereals on more moderate acres of doubtful viability. Oil prices have, of course, come back a long way from the near $150 per barrel in the early part of the summer, but there is little indication that fertiliser values will follow a similar trend.

It has been a better year for beef producers: at the start of the year the best Scottish cattle were making 222p per kilogram on the hook; now the value is in the region of 280p per kg. Meanwhile cull cow values have risen by about 50 per cent, although production costs have also increased and there is little in the wind to suggest that the gradual erosion of the breeding herd will not continue.

The sheep trade has also seen an improvement, though truth to tell, it could hardly have been any worse than during the closing months of 2007. Numbers of breeding ewes continue decline and it is becoming increasingly obvious that this problem will have to be addressed. But the good news for the UK sheep sector is that there is likely to be a significant reduction in lamb available from New Zealand.

Dairy farmers have enjoyed better fortunes with prices now appreciably higher, but there remains a very considerable fear that the trend over the next few months will be downwards.

On Boxing Day I took myself off to Wetherby for an afternoon's racing. It was a wonderfully crisp and bright day and the racecourse was thronged by about 14,000 spectators, with a good representation from the local farming community. Needless to say the bookmakers had the best of what was a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Ever curious to gauge the mood in Yorkshire I engaged in conversation with several farmers. The consensus was broadly in line with Scottish views and the prevailing air of uncertainty. Yorkshire has traditionally been a big pig producing county, but one farmer told me he had had enough of losing money in recent years and he was in the process of winding down his operation. Unless something radical happens it looks as though British pork and bacon will soon be short supply.

Winter crops of both cereals and oilseed rape generally looked well apart from those that had obviously been "puddled" in during less than ideal weather. As far as what these crops will eventually be worth come harvest, no-one has anything other than a vague notion that they might sell at slightly higher prices than in the current year.

IDETECTED an increasing divide between town and country, similar to what is happening here in Scotland. The most obvious manifestation of this was an estimated 300,000 people turning out on Boxing Day to support meets of foxhounds in England. The law in Scotland, which banned hunting, is generally agreed to be one of the most flawed items of legislation passed by Holyrood, but the corresponding statute in England appears even worse.

My own hunting days are long past, but I most certainly support this sport. Indeed, it should be remembered that there are strong links between hunting and racing and many a successful horse has a hunting background.

The Irish recognise this and support to their equestrian industry in the form of tax breaks and other inducements.

Boxing Day is a big sporting occasion in England and apart foxhunting many parties were out shooting pheasants. I used to enjoy shooting, but lately have become more ambivalent on this topic.

My concern relates to the rearing of vast numbers of pheasants which are released from their pens to be later blasted at by parties who pay considerable sums of money for this so-called pleasure. To me this is not sport as I like to call it. It's little more than organised slaughter.

I write from past experiences of these big shoots when the beaters had to physically coax pheasants into the sky over the heads of the waiting guns. The carnage can be colossal and it is not unknown even here in Scotland for large numbers of pheasants to be dumped in a hole after the massacre is concluded – there is no market for a heap of thinly fleshed birds.

Rough shooting is more my game with a handful of friends walking up through a field of turnips or letting the gundogs flush out a few birds from a copse. Then there is always a chance of a shot at a hare – they take some shooting, as does a twisting turning snipe flying at high speed. Best of all is waiting around a pond in the grey dark for mallard to come sweeping in over the water. It can be a mighty cold experience, but shooting to my mind is all about going home with a brace after a day out in the countryside.

But there is another sporting season under way – hunt balls. As the 19th century sporting writer R S Surtees said: "Some sort of boobies think that people come to balls to dance; whereas everyone knows that the real business is either to look out for a wife, to look after a wife, or to look after somebody else's wife."

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