FEBRUARY 19, 2008: Smallholders have hit back at the National Farmers’ Union over claims that many of them pose a threat to the farming industry.

In an article in The Times yesterday (Feb 18), it was reported that the NFU regards a growing number of “hobby farmers” who keep livestock as a threat to the future of British agriculture unless they undergo tough licensing and inspection regimes.The NFU is blaming ‘hobby farmers’ for the second wave of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey last September. Peter Kendall, the president of the NFU, claims that without new controls on them they could be the backdoor route for new disease outbreaks.The Times reported Mr Kendall as saying: “We have to ask, should hobby farmers be allowed to jeopardise the professional industry? In these days of bluetongue, foot-and-mouth disease, avian flu and increased disease threats from climate change, should these keepers not need a licence, or some form of competence, to look after farm animals?”Mr Kendall, who runs an arable farm with his brother in Bedfordshire, said: “I need to be inspected, and I don’t see why everyone keeping animals should not have the same inspections. These people cannot be allowed to put agriculture at risk.”He said that the NFU had made a formal request for new supervision of hobby farmers in a submission to the Anderson inquiry, which is examining the handling of last year’s Surrey foot-and-mouth outbreak.He said: “We’ve identified the need to look at the risks posed to professional agriculture by the growing band of lifestyle hobby-keepers, who are allowed to operate without inspection or even training.”Organisations representing smallholders rejected the claim. Mary Marshall, of the Smallholders’ Forum, said: “I do not think it helpful or productive to be blaming hobby farmers. Hobby farmers often spend more on proper prevention practices than do commercial farmers, and tend to have more veterinary involvement and spend more time per animal. It could therefore be said they are less of a risk.”The Times reported that Paul Roger, senior vice-president of the Sheep Protection Society, was also angry. “Hobby farmers should not be demonised – sometimes it is commercial farmers not recording things properly that cause problems.” he said.“Most hobby farmers have their animals close to them, while some commercial farmers – who by their very nature operate as a business – rent land remote from their own and so it is not easy for them to oversee their animals properly.”On a Times website forum, one Middlesex reader, DS, said: “Are the NFU’s members truly concerned about disease spread or more about the growing consumer demand for locally produced high welfare animal products that they produce?”Smaller farmers are much more likely to notice a sick animal and bother to call the vet or pay for medicines. To say they are untrained is an ill informed insult. Small “hobby farmers” often have second incomes, which mean they can pay for training, veterinary examinations and equipment. They also have the freedom to offer more thorough care by not being stretched in caring for 500+ sheep to 1 person.”The NFU could instead have offered training and support to ensure these farmers meet their standards, rather than suggest additional legislation, something farmers aren’t usually keen on.”Incidentally, one does not need to have any training to acquire a large farm and fill it with livestock. Nor is every commercial farmer trained or even practising as they were taught. The NFU knows this perfectly well.”

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