Amid the helicopters and snipers, rural life continues on

A northern village has been living with the threat of a fugitive gunman for three days
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The Independent Online

Maggie Tulley was at work at the Vale Café serving lunchtime pies and rolls when the news came over on the radio that the general public were now at risk from Raoul Moat.

It is three days since the first police sirens shattered the summer quiet of this Northumberland market town and heralded a state of something resembling a siege in Rothbury. Since then the air and ground exclusion zones have been lifted and many hoped that despite the build-up of police hardware, the annexation of the village green by television crews and the presence of officers bristling with weapons as they strolled up and down the high street, things were about to improve. It was not to be.

"When I heard I was going to get in my car and go straight home, but I'm probably safer here," said the 36-year-old mother of three.

Like many who make their living in this stunningly beautiful part of English border country she lives on a farm, and her partner is a shepherd, requiring him to work the very hills that police believe are being stalked by the fugitive gunman.

There have been searches and sudden swoops going on and off since the moment on Tuesday when the population of 1,700 was ordered to go inside and lock its doors for fear that Moat was nearby. Since then the discovery of his tent by a local farmer and the arrest of four men in the town, two of whom appeared in court yesterday charged with conspiracy to murder, have convinced people that the danger is real and present.

This being the countryside, of course, there is no shortage of rural homespun solutions to solving the problem. Some suggest sending in the local hunt, while others believe a meat pie laced with strychnine might stop him in his tracks. But the authorities are pursuing more conventional methods. Outside the Coquetdale Library and Arts Centre the build-up of armoured police cars and riot vans lent by forces more used to dealing with terror raids and inner-city gun crime than the day-to-day misadventures of rural life has only reinforced the point that a killer is at large. And people, for all the bravado, are edgy. "I was at home the other day and I was jumping every time the dogs barked. I went out to the sheds to look and thought if he is going to clobber you he may as well get it over with," said Ms Tulley.

Rothbury has endured its fair share of setbacks in recent months. Two floods and the heavy snows of the winter were trying enough, but it means they have the support structures in place to cope with the present crisis. Neighbours check on neighbours, and friends make a point of calling in on the elderly or infirm, especially if they are living in isolated places.

One such place is West Row farm, 340 acres of grassland and moor belonging to the Duke of Northumberland, five miles outside Rothbury. Those that know the topography of this area are keenly aware that there is nearly continuous open countryside – rivers, forests, moors and lakes – stretching from here to John O'Groats.

Michael Charleton, 74, and his partner, June Gibson, 64, were yesterday leading a flock of black-faced sheep down for shearing. For them, the farming routines dictated by the rhythm of the seasons must continue regardless. In the meantime they have become all too expert at recognising the circling patterns of the police helicopters and spotting the snipers concealed in the hedgerows. Both agree that finding him will be difficult, but that he will struggle to feed himself off the land without help. "There's no berries out there yet. No wild raspberries or gooseberries. If he lets a shot off to kill a rabbit he will be heard, so unless he is good at tickling trout he will go hungry. And if he tops himself the foxes will eat him in next to no time," said Ms Gibson. "But it is like looking for a needle in a haystack."

Mr Charleton is sceptical, however, that he really poses a major threat. Having roamed these moors alone since childhood, this is where he feels comfortable.

"I don't think he is going to shoot you unless you bother him. He might take a pot shot at you, but I don't think he is as bad as that. He is not like that fellow at Whitehaven who had a complete brainstorm. He is giving the police a very good run around," he said.