There is a movement going on around the area I live where a group of residents are fighting to get footpaths opened across the local farmer’s land. There is history behind the movement. For many years the footpaths were open to walkers under an EU scheme, which paid landowners to open paths across their land to the public. When the scheme ended, the landowners had the option of keeping the paths open or closing the access.
In this particular case, the residents are arguing that the footpaths have been open for so many years that they have become permanent rights of way. The landowner is contesting this and having closed the footpaths a few months after the EU grant was removed, he is determined that they remain closed. Heavy barbed wire on gates highlight the decision. It has all become very Archers-like.
As a dog-owner and keen walker/runner, I am all for the opening of footpaths and giving people plenty of access to our beautiful countryside. There is nothing better than meandering alongside a field of golden barley or gazing back at a field of sheep as they stare at you. It is an experience that really connects people and their local environment.
Then I enter a conversation with a gamekeeper who runs a concession on the landowner’s farm. The gamekeeper explains to me the scope of his work. He rears young pheasants and partridges on the land and, from spring onwards, the birds are nesting and rearing their young at the edges of the fields and in the woodlands. The edges of some of the fields are also home to many species of bird and plant, including skylarks, which are becoming increasingly rare.
While the common image of a gamekeeper is someone who rears game-birds so wealthy people can shoot them for sport, he or she actually has a far greater role in countryside management than that. Yes, birds are reared to be shot, but the gamekeeper also has a role to play in promoting native wildlife, keeping pests under control and generally helping keep the symbiotic relationship between the natural countryside and modern agricultural practices as balanced as possible.
This gamekeeper also told me how, prior to the paths being closed, he had endured several torrid conversations with dog owners who were outraged that he asked them to keep their dogs on the lead while it was nesting season. While the image of a beautiful Golden Retriever or Red Setter galloping through knee-high grasses might bring a flutter of pride and joy to the dog’s owner, what is happening out of sight is that eggs in nests are being smashed; nesting birds are being frightened away, never to return to their young; and young rabbits, hares and other mammals are petrified.
There are always two sides to every argument and, in this case, the points for both sides are very strong. Members of the public need green space to walk in for their physical and mental health and we know these spaces are reducing all the time; for the public to engage with their surroundings, access to the same surroundings is important.
But, farming and its associated industries have rights too. A landowner is exactly that – someone who owns the land. He or she is also a custodian of the animals, birds and plants that live and thrive on the land.
Both sides are expounding their opinions but not to each other. Could it be that, instead of arguing, the two parties should come together and learn more about each other’s viewpoints and come to an amicable agreement that allows the countryside to thrive and the people to enjoy and appreciate it.