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Replace walls and hedges, demand country campaigners

Friday 11 June 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard congratulates the CPRE on its latest campaign to have drystone walls and hedgerows replaced.

IT SOUNDS ridiculous now but back in the 1970s, I bought a rather nice detached house for £15,000. The one problem was that the garden was rather small so – for £600 plus legal costs – I bought a small adjoining plot from the farmer.

The Drystone walls of Bordley

That left me with a garden that was mostly surrounded by drystone wall but had about 20 yards of ugly wooden fencing. To replace this, I asked a local drystone waller for a quote – and almost fell down when he delivered it.

His fee would have been £3,000, an astonishing fifth of the cost of fairly large family house. We planted a hedge instead and, hopefully, that is still going strong because we moved some 15 years later.

I mention these figures, not in boast (I wish I still had that house today!) but to illustrate the fact that even 30 years ago, drystone walls were becoming the preserve of the rich. The skills involved were dying out, the stone itself was expensive to buy and transport, and the few wallers still in business could charge more or less what they liked.

And this is why I give a hearty welcome to a report this week that the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is demanding that, when the notorious Common Agricultural Policy is revised, farmers should be recompensed for re-building drystone walls or re-planting hedgerows (see News………)

The walls are, of course, one of the jewels in the crown of the Yorkshire Dales. And the CPRE survey showed that of all the tragedies that have been inflicted on our landscape in recent decades, the loss of walls and hedgerows is the one that worries people the most.

That doesn't surprise me at all for the days are long gone when farmers employed skilled labourers who, in the winter months, repaired damaged walls. Even rich farmers today (and there are very few of those in upland areas) can no longer afford the upkeep of walls often damaged be sheep or – even worse – trippers.

The sad tale of the hedgerows is worse still for it came about as a result of Government bungling on a massive scale. It left the nation with the most sinister legacy ever created by the late and unloved Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Obsessed as it was with increasing food production (much of it unwanted!), MAFF paid farmers to grub out thousands of miles of hedgerows to created bigger fields for bigger agricultural machinery. Many of those hedges were centuries old and the affect on our landscape and wildlife was devastating.

When someone finally realised what a disaster had been created, MAFF started paying farmers to replant hedges – although the original scheme was not rescinded.

So you had the madness when some less-than-scrupulous farmers got payments to grubbing out old hedges and more for replanting them with seedlings which would take years to mature.

Thankfully, MAFF is no longer with us and DEFRA, for all its many faults, realises that landscape and wildlife are important to the quality of life of everyone in these islands, townies and country folk alike.

There is good news, too, on the drystone wall front because schemes are afoot to train more youngsters in this intricate but tough trade. In parts of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, there have been generous grants for the repair of walls for some years.

However, the national park covers only a relatively small part of drystone wall country, which spreads along the Pennines from Derbyshire to Scotland. They are, indeed, a national treasure.

This is why the CPRE has my fervent backing (for what that's worth). I just hope that the people in Whitehall and Brussels who control the purse-strings will listen, too. Sadly, drystone walls, or even hedges for that matter, are pretty thin on the ground in those parts…

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