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Private Eye March 29 2004

It is always salutary to be reminded by knowing contributions to the letters page how little some readers of this column actually know about the countryside. Doubtless one thing they unreservedly welcome is the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW) which they probably call the 'right to roam'. This legacy of Chris Smith has turned out to be a typical New Labour achievement,, by promising much more than it will actually deliver when the act comes on stream this summer. The task of mapping out the 7000 square miles of moorland, heath and downland covered by the act has created a mountain of costly bureaucracy. In essence the 'right to roam' has served as little more than a politically correct gesture to embittered Guardian-readers, who see it as a long overdue kick in the teeth for all those arrogant rural plutocrats who want to keep 'townies' off their grazing land and grouse moors.

Any sensible farmer welcomes responsible visitors who know when to shut gates, respect nesting birds and provide custom for farm shops. But the downside of the right to roam is the minority who see in it a licence to treat those who work in the countryside with contempt, as was evidenced at a recent gathering of farmers in north Wales. One farmer described how he had seen a group of youths trying to climb a cliff on his land. When he called up to them that it was dangerous and liable to crumble, they shouted abuse, kicked down one of his walls and broke a fence. An elderly neighbour, running out to remonstrate with a group chasing his sheep, had a heart attack and died. Another farmer, seeing 'ramblers' stealing his property, rang the police who, when they arrived, only wanted to confiscate the shotgun he used to keep foxes away from his lambs, lest he might be tempted to use it if the intruders came back.

A particular concern of several farmers was the reckless way in which some visitors allow dogs to create mayhem. When one protested to boys who were encouraging their dogs to chase his sheep, they went off to complain to their father, who promptly brought back a second dog to join in the fun. Another reported how so many visitors had allowed their dogs to excrete freely over his land that, when this was noted by an eagle-eyed inspector from Tesco, he lost his 'organic accreditation'. Uncontrolled dogs not only can be a menace to farm animals and wildlife but can also spread disease, as in the current epidemic of bovine TB, which makes a mockery of the ever more draconian biosecurity measures forced by government on farmers themselves.

A final concern was the way farmers are now exposed to compensation claims from anyone who comes onto their land, even if the injury is scarcely something the farmer could have avoided, such as a branch falling from a tree. Even if visitors damage themselves while pulling hay bales off a rick, as recently happened on one farm, the farmer is still liable to pay compensation. This has contributed to a huge increase in public liability insurance, which can now amount to thousands of pounds a year. This may not sound much to an affluent town dweller. But when hill farm incomes average less than 10,000, it all leads some farmers to wonder how much longer there will be a 'countryside' left for 'townies' to roam in.