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At last, some good news for the countryside

Friday 26 December 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard is taken by surprise by Some unexpected seasonal gift which he has been championing for many years

AS THE saying goes, never look a gift-horse in the mouth. So, as it's Christmas, I shall count our countryside blessings - and hope that promises, promises, eventually turn into reality.

Regular readers may have noticed that I am normally less than ecstatic when Government - of any colour - announces new campaigns to make rural life economically and socially more rewarding for ordinary country folk.

Far too often in the past, those words have proved to be just that: vote-catching slogans never really intended to be put into action. In recent weeks, however, there have been announcements that even this Government will find difficult to forget.

A Christmas escape from all this

First and foremost is the announcement of plans to build a series of multi-billion-pound wind farms offshore around Britain's coasts - including the Yorkshire and Humberside coasts - which looks as though someone, somewhere, has actually made a decision to make so-called "green electricity" a reality.

That this is enormously good news for the Yorkshire Dales, and any hilly area of Britain for that matter, may not be obvious at first sight - but I assure you it is. For it means that huge swathes of our most beautiful countryside will not be buried under forests of noisy windmills.

Some 15 years ago, I discussed the rash of wind farms spreading over the Pennines in West Yorkshire with Sir Barnard Ingham, the fiery former Press Secretary to Maggie Thatcher, and he was incandescent with rage.

Sir Bernard, you see, comes from Todmorden and his home-town was being encircled by wind farm developments spreading from there to Howarth. There, the world-famous Bronte museum was under threat as a tourist venue because of damage to the wild and wonderful Wuthering Heights landscape.

Sir Bernard told me that he had personally taken the-then energy minister aside in the corridors of the Palace of Westminster and had told him that if he approved any further expansion he would "be responsible for the greatest environmental disaster of the 20th Century."

Now I am a great believer in wind generation - but not at the expense of our finest scenery and the lives and comfort of the people who live and work there. To build such farms at sea will, of course, be much more expensive. If this government has really grasped that nettle, I look upon it as a near miracle.

There is other good news too. Moves are afoot, for instance, to persuade farmers to drastically reduce the amount of chemical pesticides they use - poisons which damage wildlife both on land and in our water courses. This is long overdue - since the 1960s, to be exact - and if this government succeeds in bringing it about, it will be another ecological feather in its cap.

And strange though it sounds, the capture of Saddam Hussein lurking in his hole in Iraq may also have some positive benefits for our countryside . It could, for instance, save fox hunting.

Now I dislike horses and have never ridden. When my daughter had a pony, it was bad-tempered, time-consuming and unbelievably expensive. I do, however, resent bitterly the rights of politically correct townies to trample on country traditions going back centuries.

So how the heck does Saddam fit in here? Well, it's simple really. Tony Blair has no real opposition except his own Labour left wing. It was when these old Labour troglodytes threaten to rebel that our Tone threw them a titbit to keep them at bay - a ban on hunting with dogs.

The capture of Saddam - and the subsequent surrender of horror weapons by Libya - have greatly strengthened Blairs's hand in Parliament so, with luck, he will not have to bring out that sop again. Thousands of rural jobs could be saved as well as one of the countryside's greatest pageants.

If all this seems somewhat far-fetched, it is Christmas after all, a time for good tidings. And after two or three very bad years indeed, we deserve some. I wish everyone a merry countryside Christmas.

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