Phil Latham: 'Everyone wants a better industry, but many hope someone else will deliver it'


It seems you cannot watch the news these days without seeing pictures of starlings forming a ‘murmuration’ before settling down for the night.


These spectacular aerial displays of co-ordinated and co-operative behaviour are truly a natural wonder.


There is another kind of murmur though and that is the one from my office as I watch thousands of starlings land on my sheds and steal feed from beneath my cows’ noses.


No matter what we do, the little blighters get used to it, the nets do not work as they squeeze in between the spaced roof sheets and drop like little bomblets into the space below.


The £350 electronic gadget emitting white noise and eagle calls works for a week, but then just keeps staff out of the shed while starlings use it as a perch. They are beautiful pests.


When I was studying zoology, we looked at their flocking behaviour. It was thought flocking together helped reduced the chance of being eaten by predators as there are eyes looking in all directions. And while some have their heads down feeding, some are looking up and raising the alarm if a threat arises.


It is true most starlings behave like this, but there are always cheats. These birds never look up, they take advantage of the altruistic behaviour of others, but never take their turn on patrol duty.


Individually, this makes them fatter and better able to survive, but if the population becomes dominated by ‘cheats’, the flock becomes more vulnerable to predation, which keeps cheaters in check.


I used to think the spring-calving herd was a bit like cheating starlings. They take advantage of pricing mechanisms the industry has in place and produce milk from the cheapest resource, namely grazed grass, but do not carry the increased costs of a year-round production profile which processors require.


If we end up with a hard Brexit, it is likely there will be an increase in pressure on prices and there will be a polarisation towards lowest cost production systems for survival.


If processors want year-round supply, they will have to address the costs of seasonality or accept more seasonal supply for commodity markets.


The ‘cheat’ gene is evident in farming when it comes to turning up at meetings. Everyone wants a better industry and many hope someone else will deliver it.

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