Spitfires, strikes and the French beef ban – celebrating an eventful century of Norfolk farming
PUBLISHED: 11:03 01 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:15 01 November 2019
Angela Sharpe Photography 2018
The Norfolk branch of the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) celebrates its centenary at a special AGM this afternoon – prompting memories of 100 turbulent years of war, protests, campaigns and agricultural development.
As the guns of the Great War fell silent, the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) was forged during a time of great uncertainty and anxiety for the agricultural industry.
The Corn Production Act 1917, designed to protect British food security during the war by guaranteeing minimum prices for wheat and oats, was soon to be repealed as peacetime trade re-opened, leaving farmers in a perilous position.
Edward Nunneley, president of the NFU - founded a decade earlier in neighbouring Lincolnshire - visited Norfolk in July 1918 with a view to starting a county branch, but it took several more informal meetings before that goal was achieved and the first general meeting of NFU Norfolk was held on 1 November 1919.
Branches sprung up in most market towns with the purpose of supporting and lobbying for the interests of farmers.
There was little time for the newly-formed NFU Norfolk to find its feet before it faced its first major test. Thousands of Norfolk farmworkers took part in the Great Strike in 1923, which was to cause bitter divisions and sour industrial relations for years.
As many as 20,000 fought for their livelihoods and against wage cuts after the government broke its promise to protect the price of grain after the First World War - a so-called "great betrayal" which meant wheat prices halved in value to about £10 per ton in just six months.
Over the years, NFU Norfolk successfully mobilised its members for many protest marches and rallies, including a mass protest in Ipswich in 1939, a demonstration for European sugar beet growers in Brussels in 2005 and the #SOS Dairy event in Westminster in 2012.
But probably its politest protest was in November 1999, during a campaign to lift the French ban on British beef, imposed during the epidemic of BSE, or "mad cow disease".
A group of Norfolk farmers paraded about 50 yards from Chapelfield in Norwich behind a banner declaring "Le boeuf Anglais est arrivé!" to present a joint of Norfolk-reared beef to Huguette Andries-Smith, honorary consul for France in East Anglia, along with a letter addressed to French prime minister Lionel Jospin.
Another effective demonstration of farmer power was the first national boycott of livestock markets in May 1970 - a protest against the government's farm price review which was well-supported in Norfolk - although the NFU later lost a government legal challenge and had to give an undertaking never to repeat it.
Nationally, 250,000 pigs, 50,000 cattle and 200,000 sheep were held back from markets up and down the country and at Norwich, then one of the country's biggest markets, the total cattle entry was barely a tenth of the previous week, with just 129 fat cattle, 64 barren cows, 24 stores and 32 calves. It was a similar story at markets in Burnham Market, Aylsham, and King's Lynn.
Norfolk farmers were also at the vanguard of new conservation policies as pioneering work on grazing marshes in Norfolk paved the way for land management agreements across Europe.
Against the backdrop of a fierce debate between environmental campaigners and food producers centring on the Norfolk Broads, the Halvergate Grazing Marshes Scheme pilot was launched in 1985 which became an integral strand of the Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) scheme which was, in turn, the forerunner of modern Countryside Stewardship agreements which reward farmers for environmental work.
Looking to the future, Tony Bambridge, former NFU Norfolk county chairman said: "I believe the NFU still has a vital role to play. There are many challenges, especially climate change which seems to manifest itself in extreme weather events, and we, as farmers, will be called upon to help mitigate the effects of climate change. The move to the digital age and the unrelenting march of technology will provide many challenges and great opportunities for our industry.
"As we look back on the great works of the NFU, and the people and farmers of Norfolk who achieved so many benefits for the farmers of the day, we can also take heart that Norfolk farming has a resilient future."
THE 'NORFOLK FARMER' SPITFIRE
Farmers made a huge contribution to the war effort by increasing food production during the Second World War - but NFU Norfolk members went further by buying a fighter plane as well.
As the Battle of Britain raged, the idea to start the NFU Norfolk Spitfire Fund came from the Loddon branch, following a suggestion from farmer Frederick Key.
Money came in quickly. On one occasion in August 1940, £500 was collected by Norfolk auctioneer Clement Gaze at North Walsham pig market when it was decided to continue with the sale during an air raid. In September 1940, the NFU presented £5,000 for "The Norfolk Farmer" Spitfire, Mark IIa P8138.
It went into service on 4 July 1941 at Middle Wallop, Hampshire and then went to Perranporth, Cornwall, flying sector patrols with 66 Squadron.
The aircraft had its fair share of incidents, including hitting poles on Bodmin Moor during a practice exercise, and records show it had at least four other accidents on landing and take-off before it was finally scrapped on 28 June 1945.
A CENTURY OF CHANGE
The last 100 years have seen huge changes in Norfolk's farming landscape.
According to figures taken from government agricultural surveys, the number of people working on the land plummeted from 41,000 in 1950 to 12,500 in 2016 as mechanisation took hold, with 59,703 horses working on farms in 1915 replaced by an estimated 3,000 tractors in 2018.
There were also significant changes in Norfolk's livestock between 1915 and 2016, with cattle numbers falling from 129,081 to 74,130, and sheep numbers falling from 351,991 to 116,715, while the county's pig herd rose dramatically from 117,427 to 539,201.
These numbers were reflected in the diminishing area of permanent grassland, falling by more than half from 115,304ha in 2015 to 53,435ha in 2016
Meanwhile the wheat area rose from 58,448ha in 1915 to 96,599ha to become the dominant crop in 2016.
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