Oddly, because I was born on a farm and take an interest in rural matters, I have a troubled relationship with farmers.
Every few days, while enjoying looking at the birds and the trees on a country lane, I get harangued by the local farmer or his gamekeeper. For me, walking down a lane enjoying the blessings of nature is part of normal country life; for them it is trespassing. They are as hysterically protective of their 5000 acres of East Anglian landscape as the most prissy suburbanite of the lawn in front of his house.
Why are so many farmers hostile towards other people who live in the countryside? Is it because they believe themselves to be the unappointed guardians of the landscape? If that is the case, why do so many of them do their damnedest to mess it up?
Recently, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England came up with a gloomy statistic: between 1998 and 2007, six per cent of our natural hedgerow was lost.
What is peculiarly depressing about this report is that the great degradation of hedgerows in the 1970s and 1980s was known to have contributed to the dramatic decline of wildlife – insects, birds and mammals. Considerable EU subsidies have been paid to encourage farmers to look after the environment. In spite of all that, an astonishing 16,000 miles of hedgerow were lost in that decade. While not all were grubbed up by farmers, they doubtless played their part.
Of course, I do have farmer friends. One recently told me of a man who farmed arable and grazing land and who had such dislike of dogs that, if he saw one on his land, he would shoot on sight. He gave my friend a tip: always carry some sheep’s wool in your pocket.
It provided an alibi. After he had shot the dog, the farmer would put some wool between the animal’s teeth, rather like a dodgy copper planting drugs. Nobody, after all, could complain if he protected his livestock from a sheep-worrier.
My farmer friend rather approved of this approach. Bloody dogs are a nuisance, he said.
To me, it was just a typical story from the land. Farmers like to think of themselves as sturdy outsiders with a rough, tough attitude to the conventional world of townies and do-gooding environmentalists but, when it suits them, they play the establishment game , cheerfully banking their hand-outs from the state.
Perhaps it is time they recognised that with these subsidies – not to mention, the privilege of owning land – comes responsibility.