Andrew Arbuckle: Snow we can take … let's get the politicians talking about serious issues

THE temptation is to write about the current bout of hard weather, but nothing that would be said here could make one whit of difference to those who have been trudging through deep snow to keep their cattle and sheep fed and water pipes thawed.

And having experienced it myself, there is little comfort in being told, "this cold snap is doing a world of good killing off the bugs" when you are looking down at fingers red raw from handling very cold metal.

However, this must be the first time that so much damage has been done by the weight of snow causing roofs to cave in. I understand that some of the buildings that have been destroyed are of relatively modern design with Z-shaped purlins that are supposed to be designed to carry the weight of up to 18 inches of snow. So I expect we can see more robust requirements in the future.

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There is also a temptation to comment on Hilary Benn and his government's sudden conversion to producing food.

I was not down at Oxford to hear the UK minister compare his policy with that of the Atlee post-Second World War government's determination to produce more food at home, so I do hope there was someone at the press conference after the speech to ask Benn if he was really serious in making the comparison. As all oldies know, the 1947 Agriculture Act was solid with incentives and equally solid with rewards for increasing production.

Compare that with the treatment of farming by the UK government over the past decade – including the same minister only two years ago saying this country could live on imported food.

Having resisted these temptations, I do think it is necessary to talk about the forthcoming UK election. Not the blatant type of electioneering displayed by Benn, but more about how can agriculture ensure that it features on the agendas of all the major parties.

I do know that a great deal of agricultural policy is rightly devolved to Scotland but there is still a whole range of issues for a future UK government which will either impact directly or have major indirect consequence on the farming community.

The classic example of this is in animal disease, which has little respect for political barriers – a position aggravated by the small percentage of farmers who are so focused on their own position they are willing to trade in areas where others, more mindful of the dangers of transmitting disease, fear to tread.

The easy part in writing political manifestos (and I say this as someone who was involved at one time) is for politicians to use "motherhood and pie" non-specific statements. An example: "We will create a prosperous and environmentally friendly agricultural industry based on family units."

With a warm homily such as that, the politicians nod and reckon: "Well, that's farming covered."

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Faced with this verbal mince, farmers and farming lobby organisations should be asking aspirant politicians specific questions on specific issues.

One example will be to get parties signed up to a definite action plan complete with timetable on bovine tuberculosis (TB).

I know the position in Scotland but I am concerned that inability to control the disease down south makes the potential for transmission to Scotland much greater.

Fifty years have passed since the then UK minister, Christopher Soames, announced that the disease was "for all practical purposes, non-existent". With some 40,000 cattle being slaughtered annually in the UK because of TB the reality is different.

I know the eradication group has now a plan for England but it is neither robust nor timetabled and that is an issue on which politicians, including those standing in Scotland, should be questioned. And while on the subject, they should be asked to support a UK eradication move on bovine virus diarrhoea (BVD), sheep scab and even Johne's disease. The Scottish Government is making moves on BVD but it would send out a powerful message if the rest of the UK were of similar mind.

For the past two decades, the UK has had a poor reputation for animal diseases with BSE and foot-and-mouth sweeping through the country. Can we now get on the front foot and show the rest of the world that we are positively dealing with animal disease in this country?