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A country holiday: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Friday 15 August 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard takes a busman's holiday -ten days off in the countryside which is his professional workshop

THEY say, of course, that a change is as good as a rest. It could be true, I suppose, but that would mean my wife and I spending our brief summer holidays at the seaside - or perhaps on some tacky Mediterranean island with hundreds of drunken lager louts

But no, we stay in the British countryside, which also happens to be my place of work. And that means, for better or for worse, I enjoy some bits - and get quite upset about others.

We started off brilliantly, at the CLA Game Fair at gorgeous Harewood House in Lower Wharfedale, and it was a triumph: 130,000 visitors over three days made it the most successful country fair ever held in Europe.

It also gave me a laugh for the Government's junior environment minister, newly appointed Ben Bradshaw, literally ran and hid when confronted by red coated riders and a few hounds, protesting against plans to ban fox hunting.

Perhaps he thought these were the slavering beasts which would tear him limb from limb, as they are always depicted as doing in the London-based media. If so, he should have been at one of my favourite August locations, the Lunesdale agricultural show at Kirkby Lonsdale this Tuesday.

There, the Lunesdale Hunt had bought the pack and invited all the children in the large crowd into the arena to fondle and play with the dogs, which they did by the score. The whole arena became a sea of laughing faces and wagging tails.

Then, the huntsmen invited the kids to join the hounds in a gallop around the ring, which they did with great delight to the sound of D'ye ken John Peel blasting through the loudspeakers.

There came great cheers and laughter from the crowd. But on the faces of many of the older spectators - mine too, I should guess - was a look a deep sadness. We knew, you see, that this time next year, all those hounds could well be dead - put down if hunting is banned by a cynical, townie Government anxious to appease its Old Labour left wing.

In the valley below the showground, the River Lune - once one of the best salmon rivers in England - ran low and sluggish. It's headwaters up on Shap Fell had not felt the benefit of some of the fierce thunders storms which had swept over the Yorkshire Dales and, to make matters worse, the national press was carrying stories about the imminent extinction of the salmon as a species.

One of the main causes for this is illegal fishing at sea off the Irish coast, which I was writing about 30 years ago. Two small Irish trawlers can between them tow up to ten miles of monofilament net, sweeping the seas dry of thousands of fish on their way to British rivers. The Irish authorities know all about it- but do nothing.

I had hoped for a couple of days fishing, for a few salmon have been reported in the lower reaches of the Lune. My rods never came out of their bags.

However, the Lunesdale show also coincided with the Glorious Twelfth, the opening of the grouse shooting season, and on the heather moors which stretch right across the North from sea to sea, it really was a glorious day.

The weather was gorgeous but, much more important, there were lots of healthy birds, thanks to a dry spring and a good growing season for the heather, which provides first the shoots and then the attendant insects which are an essential part of the grouse chicks' diet.

This is the first good year for a very long time and it comes as a saviour for many small shooting estates, which, after several bad shooting years and the disaster of foot and mouth, came very close to bankruptcy.

But anti-field sport organisations are already preparing plans to have shooting banned after fox-hunting, which will put hundreds of gamekeepers on the dole alongside the hunt servants.

It will also mean the end of those picture postcard heather moors, for without proper management those will soon be overgrazed by sheep and return to scrub and bracken. That, of course, is a thought that will never have occurred to the politically correct "conservationists" who are more interested in class warfare than the countryside.

So did I enjoy my country holiday? It was, like the curate's egg, good in parts, bad in others. I put some cash into the pockets of rural business, which is important. But it worried me too. What will be left of the English way of country life for my grandchildren? I fear the future is ugly.

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