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Tuesday, 11 May 2021
DURING the pandemic lockdowns, footfall on the public rights of way (footpaths and bridleways) in the Chilterns has more than doubled.
The Chiltern Society, which works in partnership with Oxfordshire County Council to maintain and improve these rights of way, has been talking to landowners about how this has impacted on the everyday working life of their farms and estates and how to achieve a harmonious
None of the farmers or landowners we spoke to wanted to resort to a proliferation of signs on their land telling the public what they can’t do. “Educate, not dictate” is how one landowner expressed their preferred approach to managing the situation.
Life on the margins
James Hunt, whose family farms around the Stonor Valley, says how pleased he is to see so many more people out enjoying the countryside.
As well as a herd of beef cattle and an increasing number of acres turned over to arable, the Hunts see environmental management as an integral part of their role.
The protection of field margins for wildflowers, pollinating bees and nesting birds such as lapwings is supported by their Countryside Stewardship grant.
Mr Hunt says: “Although it is easy to think that the edge of a field is a great place to walk or even ride a horse, it can do a great deal of damage.
“Any good work can so quickly be undone just from a lack of realisation how much a field margin can contribute to the wellbeing of the natural world.”
Without exception, all landowners we contacted mentioned the problems associated with car parking and the dramatic increase in litter left in hedgerows, fields and woodlands, all of which can cause problems for wildlife as well as spoiling it for everyone else.
Simon Beddows, who farms at Dunsden Green, says that deer are interested in plastic dog poo bags which they will unfortunately eat, with inevitable consequences. Parking on verges causes damage to wildflowers, grasses and drainage ditches.
It is important not to block access to farm buildings, gates or tracks for large farm vehicles, which work as much at weekends as during the week, and to avoid parking in the passing places on narrow roads.
Conduct with cattle
During the first lockdown the society received a sudden flurry of concerned (and some irate) messages from walkers who had come across electric spring gates, apparently blocking paths around the Nettlebed Estate’s dairy farm.
In fact, they have been used for years as a means of directing the cows into different fields as they return from their twice-daily visit to the milking parlour.
But now they appeared to be causing a problem even though the insulated handles make them completely safe to undo and refasten.
Philip Day, the estate’s farm manager, says: “The answer lay in us simply putting up notices on each of the paths leading to the dairy farm explaining to walkers why they might see these spring gates from time to time, what their exact purpose is and how to handle them safely.”
They continue to be used as needed and there has not been a single complaint since.
The Chiltern Way footpath goes straight through the middle of the 180-head dairy farm.
Mr Day says: “Some walkers are anxious about crossing a field with cows and in many places on the estate it is possible to choose an alternative public footpath to avoid this.
“However, if you are in a field with cows, it is important for everyone — adults, children and dogs (on lead) — to go through as quietly as possible and keep to the path. It is also extremely important to pick up any dog poo in these fields and take it home.
“This may seem slightly counterintuitive given that you may well be surrounded by cow pats but dog faeces can contain the protozoa neosporosis which, while having no effect on the dog, if ingested by a pregnant cow as they graze the grass can cause it to abort.
“Once infected, the cow will probably suffer repeat abortions and will no longer be a productive animal.
“We have experienced several instances of this over recent years with laboratory tests confirming the presence of neosporosis.”
A local farmer also expresses concern that people don’t realise the potential problems if they let calves lick them or if they touch sheep in their pens, as this can lead to the transmission of Ecoli, ringworm and other bacteria between humans and livestock.
It should also be remembered that dogs must always be on the lead in any field containing sheep.
Vermin versus trees
Another landowner has received a Countryside Stewardship grant primarily to replace acres of trees, helping the survival of the Chilterns’ woodlands and trying to repair some of the devastation caused by ash dieback.
“Without such financial help this simply couldn’t be afforded but the grant is dependent on proof that we are taking active measures to humanely reduce deer, squirrels and other vermin, which are the greatest threat to tree health.
“Obviously, these measures only take place on marked private land, away from public rights of way, with stringent health and safety regulations in place.
“So it is alarming if the gamekeeper suddenly finds stray walkers or their dogs in his sights.
“When it is explained to the public that they could be at risk by deviating from a marked footpath, there is generally understanding and acceptance, although a few can still be extremely rude, challenging and unpleasant.”
Respecting rights of way
The Chiltern Society has been very active in waymarking rights of way to indicate whether they are legally footpaths (walkers only) or bridleways (walkers, cyclists and horse riders).
Sadly, there are still many occurrences of cyclists on footpaths and even quad bikes on bridleways.
As one landowner comments: “Not only does this sort of misuse cause extensive damage to the ground, spoiling it for everyone, but it can be extremely dangerous for children and elderly people to meet a speeding cyclist on a narrow path.”
At the Nettlebed Estate, volunteers from the Chiltern Society improved access to the paths by replacing old stiles with kissing gates, installing numerous waymark posts to help indicate the correct route and even creating a short flight of steps on a particularly steep and often waterlogged slope.
These improvements, combined with the ongoing high level of maintenance of the paths, may have ensured that the estate has not experienced some of the more serious problems reported by other landowners.
However, walkers straying from the footpaths across Simon Beddows’ arable land recently destroyed sown crops.
He says: “Once the tender young plants are trodden on, they are lost. They will not come back like grass — people are crushing next year’s food.”
Another landowner concludes: “It is often perceived that it is landowners versus the public. This is categorically not the case.
“The countryside is for all to enjoy, responsibly, conscious of the effect that every footstep has on the land and mindful of the sensibilities of other people.
“Our efforts to maintain, curate and care for the land we own and are privileged to manage are for the good of all and mutual respect is key to success.”
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