Liz Walker: Our wonderful land deserves better than being despoiled by a generation of selfish litterers

A park is littered with debris at the end of a busy summer day. Education may be the answer to the problem of carelessly discarded rubbish.   Picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA
A park is littered with debris at the end of a busy summer day. Education may be the answer to the problem of carelessly discarded rubbish. Picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA
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I REMEMBER once watching a documentary in which the interviewer and his subject were getting on wonderfully, driving along in an open topped car. The carefree questioner tucked into a chocolate bar, letting the wrapper blow away in the insouciant wind.

“Did you just... litter?” demanded the subject in strangled tones. “What sort of person are you?” In a moment, and forever, all chumminess was gone.

I’d have gone further. I’d have stopped the car, dragged the blasted man out and forced him to find that wrapper and at the very least, eat it. If he’d dumped a McDonald’s box, I dread to think what I could have done. And as for those who wrestle their mattresses out of their homes, force them into their cars and then dump them down my lane, I don’t think there’s a punishment bad enough.

Come Judgment Day, I’ll be at the Pearly Gates, finding it in my heart to forgive murderers but demanding the fires of hell for the lazy, idiotic and unthinking people who drop their rubbish anywhere.

I simply do not understand why they would consider damaging Britain’s spectacular countryside. Why am I so offended while they don’t care? We are told that wildlife is at risk from thoughtlessly dumped trash, but I am not so sure. I have, though, had to slaughter cattle that have had their complicated innards ruined by string, or plastic, or twine, and neither I nor the cow took it well. Litter is dangerous and ugly.

I have to ask myself though, does it really matter? In the great scheme of things should I just learn to accept that in the midst of wild places I will look to the far hills and see crisp packets nestling amidst the primroses? I should keep my cool, realising that eventually the kindly sun will turn into a Brian Cox supernova, we will all be frazzled and everything will be gone. But I am no Buddhist and while I’m here I’m just not having it. Ever.

Perhaps it’s cultural. I used to be amazed at gipsy encampments where spotless caravans were surrounded by grot. Things seem to have improved in recent years, but when a group of travellers turned up near us I couldn’t believe the speed with which abandoned pram wheels appeared. I wondered if they brought them along, to make it seem like home. Then these otherwise innocuous people complained that nobody loved them, without apparently realising that a bit of litter picking would have made all the difference. Nobody minds a bit of horsey charm, it’s litter that does it.

In Holland, litter simply isn’t allowed. Nobody minds the drugs but those who drop litter are presumably locked in high security prisons and never let out. The French, as in all things, take a different view. They litter all right, but then employ storm troopers to clean the streets with hosepipes at dawn.

In India, whole communities bob in seas of ordure surrounding islands of upmarket cleanliness, and in chunks of South America they just have pigs. They wander the streets eating everything, but I don’t suppose even a pig could eat a mattress, more’s the pity.

It is undoubtedly a disease of affluence. Fast food wrappers start round fast food, and for that you have to have graduated from home cooked porridge. In China, which is still very undeveloped, nothing hits the street without someone recycling it. At national monuments you can find yourself pursued by a gaggle of old ladies all waiting for your empty water bottle.

I admit, if I was Chinese I’d be with them. One dirty dog walk too many and out I go, in gloves, with my plastic bag. A couple of years ago I collected so much rubbish that I had to leave bags at the ends of the lanes so I could come back later in the car and take them to the tip. A neighbour, inspired by my example, gathered them up and took them for me, which was nice.

But the rubbish I collect is just so banal. It’s dropped by courting couples mostly, armed with a few cans and a takeaway, driving out for a pleasant interlude down a country lane. Out there is the anonymous dark, in here the nice clean car and it’s the work of a moment to chuck the muck. In towns it’s the chewing gum that enrages, spotting the streets like the droppings of a flourishing colony of seabirds.

While I dream of more aggressive ways of stopping their bad habits, education really has to be the way. We have to teach them early that it should not be done, and why.

Dumping is different though. That is planned and organised. Don’t they know about the tip? Are their local tips not open when they want to go, or is it because they think they will be charged? Whatever it is, we have to sort it out.

Our wonderful land deserves better than to be despoiled by a generation of selfish litterers.

Liz Walker is a farmer, novelist and publications officer of Penistone Show.