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Go native, says farmer trying to save rural Wales from 'terrorism'.

Byline: By Steve Dube Western Mail

"i have no hesitation in saying it's terrorism in the countryside. How else can you explain what is happening?" Hill farmer John Pugh from Llanwrthwl, Rhayader, is talking about the predators - the raptors, crows and magpies, badgers, foxes and squirrels that he says have multiplied in rural Wales and which have all but wiped out the song birds. And the otters and mink have decimated the fish.

He was so frustrated by the fashion of protecting predators like raptor birds and badgers that he was one of the prime movers in establishing Songbird Survival Trust in 2001, a charity that campaigns for a countryside that is managed in "balance".

Mr Pugh says the answer is to stop artificially protecting the predators and use native breeds of cattle to perform the twin tasks of turning the uplands into good food and improving the habitat for wildlife.

Cattle, he says, increase the insect population at the first level of the wildlife food chain and trample down the bracken, providing food and habitat for the song birds.

Mr Pugh's family has farmed in the Cambrian Mountains since the 1600s and his life revolves around farming and the rural way of life.

His home is full of books on wildlife, birds and countryside management, and he points in particular to a run of bound volumes of the Ministry of Agriculture Journal from 1924 to 1930.

"That contains what you need to know to have a living countryside," he says.

He looks back to the days of his youth when the dawn chorus would accompany his walk down the hills to school and he could tickle armfuls of trout from the streams on the way home. Neighbours would fish for salmon that measured to a man's shoulder.

Now he says the birds have gone and he hears only the rough cries of corvids like crows and magpies. And he has seen otter chase hen trout and salmon upstream and kill them before they have time to lay their eggs.

"This valley used to ring with bird song when I was a lad, and now it's silent fields," he says.

Back in those days, buyers would flock to the area to buy native breed cattle for finishing in lowland areas of England.

Mr Pugh says farmers are blamed for the death of the song birds and netsmen - in estuaries or at sea - are blamed for the dearth of fish. But he blames the misguided theories of conservationists that have caught the ears of civil servants and ministers

"Managing the countryside is an apprenticeship handed down from generation to generation," he says. "If you don't have that you can't expect someone from the middle of Cardiff, with all respect to that person, to come to the uplands of Wales and know the kind of things to look for."

Mr Pugh can reel off the mistakes that have created the silent fields of the Welsh countryside: the 30-month rule that means native breeds - that were not hit by BSE - have not time to mature; the increase in forestry that helped fox and squirrel; the local abattoirs driven to closure; the fashion for fencing streams; the prohibition on burning off moorland; the insistence of farmers removing the carcasses of fallen stock that kept predators and insects fed and reduced the need for them to attack ground nesting birds; the protection of badgers, otters and raptors.

"We're not saying there should not be otters or sparrow hawks herons or badgers," he says. "But when there are more badgers than foxes in Wales there's not much hope for ground nesting birds.

"The gamekeeper, the farmer and the bailiff looked after the countryside for centuries and kept it in balance. Now there's an army of people who have little experience of living in the countryside spending hundreds of thousands of pounds creating habitats for vermin." Mr Pugh says the only pair of lapwings that have nested successfully in his home valley for years are the stuffed ones he bought in an auction sale a couple of years ago. "A lot has to be done before the 13 farms in Cwm Valley will see lapwings and curlews nesting here again.": How the numbers have fallen:John Pugh says the 60,000 acres of the Elan Valley used to accommodate thousands of cattle. Now there are fewer than 300, although that number is rising because the Elan Valley Trust is beginning to see what these animals are capable of, he said.

He has his own herd of good looking native breeds - Welsh Blacks, Blue Greys, Belted Galloways, Highland, Luings and a couple of rare old White cattle he bought recently, all of which run with a Beef Shorthorn bull.

"The Shorthorn was a forgotten breed at one time, but it's a very good crossing breed," he says.

He recently sold his upland sheep farm to a young couple and now concentrates on his cattle, which he regards as a vital element in a managed, wildlife-rich countryside.

He points to a survey done on part of his land - Crawnant rhos - in 2005, which detailed 48 species of rare plants and flowers on fields that his cattle had grazed and trampled.

"I've wintered them on that land for years and so have generations before me and the orchids and pansies are still there," says Mr Pugh.

So are the whorled caroway, the marsh speedwell, five-leaved bellflower and bog pimpernel.

"I don't remember when I last saw so much round-leaved sundew," says the survey report by Nick Myhill and Hilary Shepherd.

The presence of devils-bit scabious was considered important because it is a significant host for the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly. "There is a remnant population here, but the Countryside Council for Wales does not expect it to survive," says the report.: 'Don't blame predators':The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said it was wrong to blame predators for the decline in song birds. RSPB spokesman Andre Farrar said predators could have a significant effect at a local level on species in a parlous state, such as lapwing, which is reduced to fewer than 1,000 pairs in Wales.

"But all the scientific evidence points to the fact that this is because of long-term land use change since the end of World War Two," said Mr Farrar.

"Songbirds for Survival and the RSPB have the same aims but the instruments of solving the problem are very different.

"For them to ignore the huge body of evidence that the sparrow hawk, for example, is controlled by the number of their prey, does not help anyone."

Mr Farrar said localised culling of foxes and corvids could help in a particular area in some circumstances but was inappropriate on a larger scale. "The ideal solution is to make the area better for the prey so that the problem becomes less and you create a natural balance," he said.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 2, 2007
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