A new Countryside Code begins with courtesy to farmers and landowners – Sarah Todd

NO NATURE table in the 1970s was complete without a poster about the Countryside Code.

Those of us traipsing in with our Clarks buckled T-bar shoes clutching an old bird’s nest, sheep’s wool scavenged from a barbed wire fence, or some other treasure knew all about shutting gates, not lighting fires, and keeping dogs on leads.

Fast-forward 40 or 50 years and it’s no exaggeration to say the countryside is in chaos. While hospitals, NHS staff and carers have been waging the war of our lifetimes against coronavirus, Britain’s green and pleasant land has been engaged in its own battle.

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Denied foreign holidays and with furlough-induced free time on many people’s hands, the countryside has become a magnet to more visitors than ever before. They’ve cycled, run, dog walked and rambled. They’ve double parked, littered, left dog mess bags hung on hedges – what’s that all about? – and touched footpath gates and village benches with wanton abandon.

There are clals for an enhanced Countryide Code - what is your view?
There are clals for an enhanced Countryide Code - what is your view?

There is juxtaposition in that while so many occupations have stopped for Covid-19, farming has continued. So gateways parked in front of are still in use, harvest still took place, ewes will still lamb and so on.

The countryside, unlike the larger population looking for somewhere to have a weekend walk, is not (and never has been) at leisure.

Over the last week or so, since the weather became more suited to Noah and his ark, the farming community has taken to social media and done a good job of posting pictures of walkers going freestyle across crops to avoid muddy footpaths.

Thousands of pounds of growing crops trodden under thoughtless feet. Thoughtless feet is probably wrong. No doubt some couldn’t have cared less, but is it more a lack of understanding?

The footpath leading up Little Roseberry from Roseberry Topping in the North York Moors National Park as calls grow for a new Countryside Code. Photo: Ian Day.

A notion that has springboarded interest in plans to “refresh” and update the aforementioned Countryside Code. All credit to the Government department Natural England for realising something needs to be done. Never has the gulf between town and country been greater.

While there was a time when most people had some family with links to agriculture, an old uncle or grandfather who maybe once worked on the land, the Countryfile generation – encouraged by the BBC programme to explore the great outdoors – is further removed than ever.

Celebrity chefs and glossy magazine features wax lyrical about the joys of going out foraging for the likes of mushrooms, sloes and brambles; as if the countryside is one big free-for-all adventure park rather than privately owned. Most are small, family concerns – not lorded over by tweedy gents.

The blight of new animal owners who wouldn’t dream of putting a lead on the family pooch needs urgently addressing. Every day dogs are lost and sometimes stolen and it’s no wonder because hardly any of them are on leads. Without anything to restrain them, when a pheasant goes up or a rabbit runs under their nose they’re off. Then, of course, there are the awful attacks on livestock. Well over a million pounds of stock is savaged by dogs every year; a figure rocketing out of control.

Do you back calls for a new Countryside Code?

So what to do about it? Rather than angry landowners shouting the proverbial ‘get off my land’, there has been a very laudable effort by many to engage with the public.

Many a gateway is adorned with signs that explain what the field is being used for; such as growing wheat, which in turn will make bread. Engagement and education is a big step in the right direction.

Any revamped code should start at the very beginning and include people’s arrival in the countryside. Slow down and think before you park!

There’s a starting point. Reverse psychology may be useful. How would people like it if strangers walked across their garden and didn’t even look up and smile?

There is real confusion about access, especially in areas designated as national parks. A lot of land in these areas is privately owned or rented by people who have scratched around in the proverbial farmyard manure over the generations to look after it.

It isn’t owned by the public. Big authorities need to take some responsibility in helping get correct messaging out there.

Looking up and smiling has been mentioned. But this is a real bugbear. Luddites like this writer put it all down to blooming mobile phones spoiling the art of conversation.

There are farmers with footpaths that go right through the middle of their stackyards. It’s been a nightmare on so many levels since the pandemic, not least worrying about the increased footfall’s risk of getting injured and then taking legal action.

It all could be much more bearable if there was a bit of acknowledgement. A nod or a wave goes a long way. It works the other way of course.

After all that’s happened in the world over the last year, there has never been a better time to start a new chapter in the countryside’s relationship with the general public.

One thing’s for sure, “Courtesy” should account for at least one of the “Cs” in the new Countryside Code.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.

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