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Changing landscape a burning issue in Somerset

BONFIRES are consuming old willow stumps in the Somerset Levels as a traditional landscape of withy beds is being replaced by an artificial wetland, writes Oliver Gillie.

Withies, which are used to weave traditional baskets, are no longer in great demand. So farmers are being given substantial grants for turning withy beds into marshy fields and maintaining them for the sake of migrating birds.

A few lonely voices, however, are asking if it makes sense to destroy one wildlife habitat just to create another.

Julian Temperley, owner of extensive apple orchards near Kingsbury Episcopi, a village on the river Parrett, south of Langport in Somerset, is angry that the subsidies are destroying a landscape he loves.

'Conservationists have decided through no reason known to man to create a wetland habitat,' Mr Temperley said. 'They are creating a new landscape instead of preserving the traditional landscape. It is a barren place of water and marsh created for the sake of a few wading birds. They have no consideration for the animals and birds that live in the withy beds.'

Withy beds have now become some of the most expensive land in Somerset. They sell for high prices because farmers can obtain a grant for grubbing up the willow roots and are then paid pounds 140 an acre for maintaining the wetland.

'This land is being destroyed by the taxpayer and withy-weaving will go with it,' Mr Temperley said. 'The withy beds provide cover for deer and foxes. People think that they are doing good. But they are inflicting on us a landscape that never existed in history.'

(Photograph omitted)