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St Valentine, patron saint of rural affairs?

Friday 10 February 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard explains why next Tuesday will be a more important day in the rural calendar than merely another retailers' bonanza

To misquote the actor Michael Caine (who never said it - it was Peter Sellars) not a lot of people know this: St Valentines' day got its reputation for kissing and cuddling not amongst human beings but amongst the birds. February 14, you see, was supposed to be the day on which our feathered friends started their courting rituals.

But as we reported yesterday some frisky birds already have young in their nest which means that, in the case of a pair of parent blackbirds, they must have been getting cuddly at Christmas, something which would have felled naturalists with shock only a decade ago.

Valentine, patron saint of the countryside?
Valentine, patron saint of the countryside?

Now I am not agin we homo-sapiens having a bit of a lark on February 14 (I am partial to the odd glass of fizz so any excuse will do) but it so happens that this year's St Valentines' Day will be of extra significance in the countryside.

What I presume started as a pagan fertility rite (as, of course, is May Day with its dancing round a phallic maypole) will next week see two events of importance to country folk.

They are the first concrete promise of much delayed farm payments from the chaos-gripped Rural Payments Agency and the 80th anniversary of one of the voluntary bodies which has done more than most to preserve the countryside from ever more urban sprawl.

Not, of course, that the RPA will actually be doling out cheques, even though they are a year overdue. February 14 is merely the day when farmers and landowners can expect to be paid by the end of March (unless the computers break down again, that is).

So you won't actually be seeing Yorkshire Dales hill framers dancing in the streets come Tuesday. Many of them will probably be queuing patiently to show their promised payments to their bank managers in the hope that their already crippling overdrafts can be extended for another six weeks.

One can't help wondering how the civil servants who run the Rural Payments Agency would have reacted had they been told: "Sorry - we've had a computer glitch. You won't get paid for a year!"

Tuesday is also the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the CPRE, which was created in the beginning to stop urban sprawl spreading along the main roads in single-building linear developments which, even then, were joining towns ands villages together.

Anyone who has driven in America, where many towns quite small in population can be 40 miles across, must bless the CPRE for its first great triumph in forcing pre-war governments to create the green belts which, until now, have kept our towns and villages apart. Even the Dales, many of our villages would have merged into their neighbours, creating one amorphous mass, all local character obliterated.

Trouble is, of course, that the green belt, and other planning regulations fought for the CPRE, are now under attack as never before. This Government, and John Prescott in particular, seem hell bent on destroying 80 years of passionate endeavour by committed volunteers, by building millions more houses wherever a bit of greenery has the nerve to show itself.

However, enough of all this gloom and doom. I shall be out later to buy some Australian fizz, or perhaps even a Catalan Cava, to get it properly chilled for next Tuesday (regular readers will know that I am boycotting all French products like champagne until they stop ripping off the Brits to pay their inefficient, riot-prone but politically powerful farmers).

My wife and I shall raise a glass come Tuesday to dear old St Valentine and hope that his day marks a good 'un for country folk. Perhaps we shall also put out extra seed for our pair of pet blackbirds. You never know, they might be bringing young 'uns to the table any day now.

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