Rural crisis: Village life - The voice from arcadia develops a fresh assertiveness

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The Independent Online
The threat to hunting has proved a catalyst in village England, bringing a new assertiveness. Stephen Goodwin talks to people in north Staffordshire.

Each day around 300 people move to the countryside. Some 10 million people live in rural England - about one-fifth of the population. The 220 square miles administered by Staffordshire Moorlands District Council is typical rural England. It stretches from the edge of the Potteries up to the moorland of the Peak District National Park. Half of its 96,000 population live in the small towns of Leek, Biddulph and Cheadle, the rest on farms and in villages.

Busybodying by urban-dominated conservation and animal welfare groups rankles with farmers. Few ride with the hunts but many see a ban as an assault on rural life.

In the national park divisions seem greatest. Clive Langford-Mycock, a farmer near the Manifold Valley, illustrates visitors' ignorance with a story of a rambler who knocked at his door cradling a lamb she had found by a wall. Which field was it in? She did not know. Mr Mycock was livid. "You've just made an orphan," he told her. The lamb would have sheltered by the wall while its mother grazed. But now a reunion was impossible.

Mr Mycock blames himself and other farmers for opening the door to the cottage "roosters" who commute to surrounding cities like Stoke and Derby. "In many ways we started the rot, buying up smaller farms, keeping the land and selling the house. Almost by our own greed we have let the nouveau riche in."

Outside the park there seems more harmony. The parish of Rushton Spencer, within easy commuting distance of Manchester airport, is 50-50 natives and "newcomers". When two-income couples swooped on the gritstone cottages in the Eighties there was local resentment. But recent incomers have generally been families whose children bolster the roll of the village primary school and who are keen to get involved in community activities.

Karen Cope welcomes newcomers to the parish council she chairs. "The village will hopefully grow in a nice healthy way," she said. But it is what the children will do that troubles her. "At one time most people's livelihoods in the village were connected with farming ... The world's a more open place now. It's wonderful, but it takes them away."

Without support, traditional family farms will not survive. The landscape will be rural but the accents and attitudes will be urban.