Beauty spots 'few can reach' receive pounds 7.5m: Ramblers criticise scheme to enhance the environmental value of countryside areas. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
FARMERS and landowners have been paid pounds 7.5m by the Government over the last two years to enhance the beauty and environmental value of more than 2,000 sites in the countryside, but many of them are not open for public enjoyment because they are too difficult to find.

The money has been channelled through the Countryside Commission's stewardship scheme. For example, farmers have been paid to reseed upland meadows and cultivate them to allow meadow flowers to flourish, to regenerate heathland and to enhance the beauty of the countryside around archaeological sites.

However, the Ramblers' Association, which has inspected about 150 of the sites, has found that 31 per cent of the grid references given by the Countryside Commission were wrong and that 58 per cent of the sites could not easily be located without specialised or local knowledge.

Furthermore, the boundaries of the sites could not be identified in half the cases, 31 per cent of the paths were obstructed and 34 per cent of paths were not clearly marked as open to the public. The ramblers say that in more than half the sites it inspected the public already had access before the site became part of the stewardship scheme.

David Beskine, a director of the association, said: 'Our report paints a dismal picture. The public was led to believe that hundreds of previously out of bounds sites in the countryside would be opened up for their use. However, we have found that public money is being paid to landowners and farmers for public access which in many areas already existed.'

Ramblers are also puzzled why some sites have been selected at all for special payments. Clee Hill in Shropshire, for example, has a general air of dilapidation and has no specially attractive hedges or local flora, according to the chairman of Shropshire Ramblers, Ron Moore.

'It is a very unprepossessing site indeed. A quarter of it looks like a scrap dealer's yard with rusting vehicles, bits of prefabricated building and a derelict stone cottage,' he said. 'The site has no special merit and the views that it provides of local hills can all be obtained equally well from other well-marked public paths.'

Michael Dower, Director-General of the Countryside Commission, admitted that it had made mistakes but the scheme was still in its infancy and was being improved all the time. The commission plans to print maps of every site and make them available locally to the public.

In some cases the commission did not realise that the public had pre-existing access rights, for example to common land, but Mr Dower denied that any payments had been made for improper purposes.

Taking the example of Steele Heath Common, in Shropshire, Mr Dower explained that pounds 150 had been paid to keep the site free of rubbish, pounds 170 had been paid for scrub clearance, pounds 150 for wildlife management and pounds 150 for access. However, the payment for access was not for the legal right of access but to secure physical access to the site which had become overgrown. In another case, Ipping Common in West Sussex, money had been paid to provide access by way of an educational trail.

The Countryside Commission suggests a new policy for encouraging farmers to enhance the beauty of the countryside by paying them for the final result, which could be chalk meadowland or upland, instead of paying them to farm according to a rigid set of rules as in the Ministry of Agriculture's Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme.

'We don't want to tell farmers when they should cut their hay so that the meadow can be reseeded naturally. The best time is going to be different for each farmer depending on the weather,' Mr Dower said.

'We will inspect the land once a year and we can then tell whether the object has been achieved and pay on results. That way we encourage the farmer to use his own initiative.'

Paying for a Beautiful Countryside, pounds 2, Countryside Commission, PO Box 124, Walgrave, Northampton NN6.

(Photograph omitted)