Straw-burning by farmers ignites debate in Britain

What's this? England's legendary green and pleasant countryside on fire, blackened and burned? Entire villages awakening to find themselves littered with ash? Palls of smoke spreading across the Arcadian valleys and plains from Marlborough to Salisbury to Stonehenge? No birds singing? No butterflies?

Sadly, it has been true in recent days - and the sight has ignited public outcries, charges and countercharges, an appeal to the European Commission in Brussels, ministerial statements, public apologies, a welcome fillip for newspaper letter columns, and even a solution or two.

The smoke and fire come from British farmers engaged in their traditional practice of burning off some 3 million tons of straw and stubble in open fields. They do it at the end of the harvest to kill off weeds and enrich the soil for the next crop.

Farmers are accused, in effect, of making hay with their stubble and straw. They reply that an unprecedentedly rainy spring meant late planting and shortened growing and harvest seasons, forcing many farmers to burn off in a shorter time than is usual.

Who could know, they demand, that gale force winds would blow in some places just as the smoke began to rise?

The appeal to Brussels comes from a European member of Parliament from Upper Thames who has presented a question to the European Commission in Brussels on how other countries dispose of their straw without blackening houses, hikers, birds, butterflies, and fishermen.

Newspapers discourse learnedly on how the frugal French have not burned a single bale of straw since 1975 (the government subsidizes the transport of straw to stock-breeding regions), how the deliberate Dutch use their leftover straw to cover strawberry fields and to store potatoes, how Greeks mix straw with molasses and feed it to dairy cows, how burly Belgians simply dig it back into the ground, how ingenious Italians, forbidden to burn at all in July and August, devise ways to turn straw into cardboard.

James Mitchell of Wilsford-cum-Lake near Salisbury in Wiltshire was one of the first of many to complain to the British newspapers. He told the Times of London that as he drove home from vacation at the end of August, he saw a ''vision of desolation.''

''Lowering behind a thunderbank of cloud,'' he wrote, ''a blood-red sun filtered down over Stonehenge as one imagines a spent fireball in the aftermath of a holocaust.''

The Warwickshire village of Bidford-on-Avon was ''up in arms'' when it awoke one Sunday to find itself under layers of ash, according to George Jackson, who lives there.

Mr. Jackson also happens to be agriculture director of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. The time had come, he insisted, when farmers should think again.

In Somerset, farmers publicly apologized to householders covered with ash blown by strong winds. Some explained that conditions were exceptional this year. Many said straw-burning was essential to avoid a dramatic drop in yields.

What is to be done? Legislation in the largely nonfarming House of Commons in nonrural London?

No, said Minister of Agriculture Michael Jopling, a farmer with 485 arable and beef acres near Thirsk in north Yorkshire.

Stubble-burning was a sensible way to kill weed seeds and revitalize land, he said. It turns out that his own farm has 29 acres of wheat straw, and he is thinking . . . well, of burning it off. He says government guidelines are adequate, if they are followed.

Unimpressed, the South Holland District Council has voted a complete ban on straw and stubble burning around Spalding in Lincolnshire. Heavy fines await offenders.

Tory councilor Jim King said that the Lincolnshire fire brigade was called out to 350 fires in July and August. The cost of fighting some fires had been (STR)4,000 ($6,000) apiece. In Cambridgeshire, the cost of fighting harvest and associated fires is put at (STR)30,000 so far.

Perhaps Britain should follow some of the European ideas. Graham Rose, agricultural correspondent of the Sunday Times, says that as well as being fed to livestock, straw can be broken up and plowed back, or burned in pellets instead of oil to fuel hot-air heaters for drying out crops.

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