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The countryside, 2011, in our crystal ball

Friday 31 December 2010

Our rural affairs correspondent John Sheard, emerging from the gloom of an Arctic Christmas, polishes his crystal ball to predict what 2011 will bring for country folk and tries to look on the bright side of life. This, he admits, is not easy.

TWENTY years or more ago, a friend of mine was fishing the River Aire near Skipton here in the Yorkshire Dales using a cast of three flies spaced about two feet apart. He suddenly felt multiple hits on his short brook rod and thought he had hooked a monster pike.

After a longish fight, his prey surfaced and he found he had caught three brown trout, one of each fly.

I fished the same stretch many times in the summer of this dying year and caught just three trout weeks apart. In other words, my friend took my entire season’s catch in a hectic 15 minutes.

And there, even for none-fisher folk, lies an important lesson. Wild brown trout are a superb indicator of the health of a given stretch of water, just as the population of wild birds can offer a diagnosis on the health or otherwise of meadow, wood or moor.

As I put a polish on the old crystal ball, it is obvious already that 2011 will be an important one for wildlife, the countryside, the people who live there, and the farmers who work it. With hysteria already high over proposed Government cuts, I would like to ignore the doom and gloom and place any forecast on the bright side. This, I admit, is not easy.

I would like to think that I could take three brownies on the same cast but that is highly unlikely in 2011. But it could be a possibility in, say, 2015 because of good work is to start this year as Defra introduces new measures to reduce river pollution from farm fertilisers, both chemical and organic.

At the same time, Defra is urging farmers to increase food production in the face of growing world shortages, putting one aim in apparent contradiction of the other. But, taking a bite at the carrot which goes with the stick, thousands of farmers are queuing up to join new environmental stewardship schemes which. hopefully, can produce both.

The juiciest carrot for the farmers is that they will get paid. The hated Rural Payments Agency, which became a symbol of New Labour incompetence, is under tough new management and is promised to cough up some 90% of all EU farm subsidy payments in their proper year, rather than two or three years late.

On the wildlife front, too, 2011 could be the year of future promise because more and more people are taking an active interest in the subject. Tesco’s have reported a 40% jump in the sale of wild bird food and ornithologists have just reported a unique change in animal behaviour:

During the severe December weather, old Cock Robin, normally the most aggressive of birds when it comes to protecting its territory against rivals, had instead become a model of cooperation, with up to six of them dining in peace, cheek by jowl, at garden feeders. If wild creatures can get together in hard times, they may still be hope for the human race.

Science, too, is due to make a bigger impact in the countryside, although some of it will bring squeals of protest from various so-called “green” pressure groups. The Coalition seems ready to go ahead with the planting of GM crops – the so called “Frankenstein foods” of the tabloid press – and have already agreed to the sale of meat and milk from cloned cows.

Far less controversial on the science front, it has just been announced that researchers at Aberdeen University are working on genetically modifying the dreaded varroa mite, which has killed millions of British bees in the past few years, just as a threatening new disease has appeared from America in the guise of sudden colony collapse.

All in all, as fortune telling goes, this is a pretty mixed bag...

Bees not only propagate millions of crops like beans and fruit – as well as billions of garden flowers – but are also an important business here in North Yorkshire, where heather honey from the Dales and the North York Moors is in high demand. A busy bee, too, is yet another symbol of a healthy environment.

For Yorkshire, one of the most dramatic changes will come this coming August when the change-over to digital TV begins, making untold millions of analogue sets useless and no doubt confusing millions of elderly and not well-off people. But at least, here in the Yorkshire Dales, we might at last get decent reception for both TV and radio, including Channel Five (although I am not sure that is a benefit or curse).

So far, I have managed to get by without mentioning “The Cuts” as hysteria spreads amongst the mainly chattering class townies. Sure, there will be job losses in the state sector – but only a third of the 900,000 new civil service posts created by Gordon Brown at a cost of tens of billions.

They will affect the countryside, too. Defra itself, the Environment Agency and local government are facing some of the most massive cut-backs in the whole range of public services and this is bound to hurt. But I hope is that 2011 will see the end of politically correct, politically inspired none-jobs.

I cross my fingers that our local councillors will at last attack the dead weight of bureaucracy by weeding out red-tape rather than cutting the services that the public really need.

For instance, North Yorkshire County Council ordered less road salt in 2010 than it did in 2009, no doubt trusting forecasts of a mild winter from the “global warmists” at the Met Office. Instead of saving a few coppers in the worst December for 100 years, they ended up paying out hundreds of thousands of pounds for emergency supplies.

It would be nice, too,for visitors and tourist businesses in the Yorkshire Dales if the Met Office got more of its forecasts right.

Let’s scrap endless propagandizing council newspapers which most people bin – thus adding even more to our waste re-cycling problems – and be prepared to face old fashioned country winters now they have made a regular come-back.

All in all, as fortune telling goes, this is a pretty mixed bag. But country folk should always remember the bounties they regard as their right: clean air, good neighbours, beautiful scenery, better schools, low crime. These are the blessings we tend to take for granted. Let’s treasure them in 2011. Happy New Year.

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