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The law & the countryside: ass or asset?

Friday 10 July 2009

THE LAW, it is said, is an ass, which gives the phrase a sort of rustic ring although it is a very long time indeed since an ass was a common sight in the English countryside. But this week, two legal decisions produced contrary opinions on this verdict.

In London, the High Court dismissed a mind-bendingly complex case brought by a woman who claimed that the environment department Defra had broken EU directives on the use of pesticides meant to protect country folk and visitors from any ill-effects of chemical sprays.

But Blackpool County Court awarded initial damages of £250,000, plus £100,000 in costs, to a woman who suffered brain damage after being attacked by a herd of cows as she walked her dog along a public footpath.

lady Justice
Country law: ass or asset?

Now whilst I have great sympathy with both ladies – brain damage is a terrible injury and no-one wants to be exposed to chemical sprays drifting onto to their private property from nearby fields – both cases raise this crucial but often overlooked question: do people seeking the roses-round-the-door rural idyll realise that life in the countryside also has its drawbacks and even its dangers.

I am always staggered by the attitude of people who buy houses near airports and then raise petitions against aircraft noise. On a more parochial note, there have been several cases here in the Yorkshire Dales of newcomers buying cottages near the parish church – and then going to law to stop the bells being rung or even the church clock chiming.

One of the funniest stories I ever wrote on this theme involved a wealthy Merseyside professional man who bought a cottage next door to a farm, only to be disgusted to find that cows messed the road outside his (second) home when being brought in for milking.

He, too threatened legal action until he found out that the owner of the farm, rather than the tenant farmer, was the Duke of Westminster, who challenged the newcomer to take the case to the highest court in Europe. “What does he want me to do – put nappies on the cattle?” the Duke said angrily. The complainant wisely sold up and left.

The victim of the cow attack was walking her dog through a field near Penrith in Cumbria which contained cows and their young calves – a scenario which appears time and time again in cow-injury cases.

And I have to ask: what sort of person does not know that all female animals will protect their young from a perceived danger, real or not. Dogs can represent a threat to livestock – sheep and cattle worrying is a constant problem here in the Yorkshire Dales – so should any sensible person take a dog through such a herd?

The cows no doubt were bent on attacking the dog: the woman suffered because she got in the way and ended up in a wheelchair as a result. This is very, very sad but to award such huge damages against the farmer whose land the lady was using for her leisure seems to be to be unjust in the extreme. The farmer, I am glad to say, is appealing.

The pesticide spray case is much more complicated. It goes back to the days when there was widespread misuse of organo-phosphates in sprays and sheep dips. At one strange phase in my life, when I did some freelance PR work for a company that made such dips, I wrote press releases saying that a wonderful job their new dip did to the wool, turning it all white and fluffy like something out of a Persil ad.

That career path only lasted a couple of months – I am not really cut out to write soft and fluffy English – which was perhaps a good thing. A couple of months after the dipping, the poor sheeps’ fleeces turned brown – and then fell out. Bald sheep do not make for good PR!

In rejecting the allegation that Defra was failing to enforce EU rules properly, the High Court took a pragmatic decision

The organo-phosphate scandal was far from funny, however, for scores of farmers who inhaled or absorbed some of these chemicals through their skin. They, too, suffered brain damage but through no fault of their own: they had bought these products from reputable agri-chemical businesses which had patently failed to carry out proper safety tests.

This was the disaster which caused the EU to introduce very strict controls on the purchase and use of pesticides, rules which I will bet are much more strictly imposed here in the UK than many other countries in Europe: if I buy any fruit or veg from places like Spain or Italy, I always wash them – or peel them in the case of hard fruit – assuming automatically that they will carry a residue of poison.

Personally, I would like to see pesticides banned completely– but that is totally impractical as the world faces growing food shortages. In rejecting the allegation that Defra was failing to enforce EU rules properly, the High Court took a pragmatic decision based on the real rural world, rather than the dream-state some people would like it to be.

So is the law an ass from a country perspective? Perhaps I can quote another literary fable, Jonathan Swift’s curate’s egg, which was good parts and bad in others. Had the High Court taken the politically correct view held by so many people just down the road in Westminster, we might have been faced with that ducal nightmare: cows in nappies!

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