Of things that go whump in the night : COUNTRY MATTERS : GARDENING

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The Independent Online
Why truss a field gate to its posts with five separate strands of tightly-knotted baler twine at either end, and coil barbed wire along the top rail? Answer: to frustrate walkers.

Is there not a signed footpath leading through the gateway? Answer: there is. Why then the aggressive lash-up? Answer: to spite passers-by.

Rural feuds never cease to amaze me. It is not just that rows grind on for decades, or that neighbours do not speak to each other for 20 years on end. Even stranger is the fact that the combatants, in their dogged pursuit of victory or revenge, do not seem to mind making idiots of themselves in the local community.

I am haunted by memories of a man who, every day for five years, walked out half a mile from the village, removed the gates from a new plantation and threw them into the bramble bushes. His objection was that a temporary, rabbit-proof fence had been built to protect a block of infant trees, and that the gates - which opened at a touch - straddled the footpath.

No matter that the forester often caught him in the act and remonstrated. No matter that everyone in the village knew what he was doing, and heaped abuse on him. So moronic was he, so cussed, that he simply carried on, indifferent to the odium. Cro-Magnon man's intelligence must have been on this level, his skin this thick.

The basis of almost all such disputes is territorial: somebody sees a threat to his own patch, or decides to stop people crossing his land, and resorts to measures which may or may not be legal.

Locals still speak with awe of the incident between the wars when a man shot his neighbour dead in the garden because chickens had ravaged his vegetable patch. Only a few years ago, just along the escarpment, a man was killed one evening after another long-running territorial wrangle, which came to a gory end when one of the disputants was felled by a blast from a shotgun and died in a pool of blood on the footpath.

Nothing as violent as that has happened in our neighbourhood lately - but just the other day a farmer said to me, in all seriousness, "There's them as only walks at night." He meant that even in our peaceful valley there are men who, like werewolves, become sinister characters in the dark. He was referring not to common-or-garden thieves, but to stranger types who simply like to be abroad under the cover of night.

I heard of one such living way up north. Call him Landowner A. Trouble began when Landowner B caught him driving pheasants off ground for which he, B, held the shooting rights.

B took steps to prevent further such manoeuvres - but then, one morning, his wife detected a powerful smell, apparently of disinfectant, in her kitchen. Investigation showed that the cold water tank on the hill above the house had been dosed with sheep-dip, a highly poisonous compound containing organophosphorous. B informed the police; but there was no direct evidence to identify the miscreant.

During the winter about 70 of B's ewes mysteriously disappeared. Then, in the summer, B's new pheasant-rearing shed burnt down: tens of thousands of young birds were killed. Forensic examination showed that the blaze had been deliberately started - but again there was no evidence to identify any particular suspect.

Since then someone has repeatedly scattered nails in B's drive, and several times his car tyres have been slashed with a knife - always at night. Nor is B the only victim who has been suffering: others in the area had similar problems. Not only the police, but numerous ordinary citizens, believe they know who the culprit is - and yet the night marauding continues.

With this sort of thing going on, it is hardly surprising that people are beginning to surround their property with wire and, as darkness falls, to connect it up to the mains. Yet I wonder whether in fact yokels are any more foolish and irrational in their sparring than people who live in urban surroundings.

I was much cheered recently by the story of a feud raging in a fashionable district of London between two senior executives, X and Y, old enough to have known better, and living in the same street.

One morning X was striding out on his way to the office when he saw his hated rival on the other side of the road. Rather than face him, he averted his gaze with a swift and pompous twist of the head. This caused him to walk straight into a tree - with such an impact that he dropped poleaxed to the pavement with a black eye and a bloody nose.

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