A distinguishing feature of the Cotswolds is disappearing. Dry stone wallers are fighting back.
The Cotswolds are renowned as one of the finest English rural landscapes, and represent the largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the country. The area stretches from just below Bath, north to Warwickshire and east from the edge of Gloucester almost to Oxford - some 790 square miles, spilling into six counties.

One of the most distinctive features of the Cotswolds are its honey-coloured dry stone walls, which criss-cross the hills and run along the valley roads. Many of them were built by farm labourers as a result of parliamentary enclosure in the 18th and 19th centuries, and some go back even further, holding the history of the land and marking ancient field and parish boundaries. They are also important to wildlife, providing a safe refuge for plants and animals. The trouble is, they are slowly and surely crumbling away.

It's impossible to say how many miles of dry stone wall there are in the Cotswolds, but it must run into many thousands. Because of this, the true scale of the damage is difficult to assess. But a survey of a small portion by Avon county council in 1991 found 20 per cent of walls were reduced to piles of rubble, while a further 30 per cent were classed in poor condition.

"These walls are part of our heritage," says Peter Seccombe, an officer for the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. "They're an important vernacular feature of the Cotswolds, certainly something people see very clearly. But in some areas the state of them is causing great concern. All the way through the AONB you'll see walls falling down and in pretty poor repair. Unless we do something about it, they are going to disappear."

Most of the walls are owned by landowners, and the deterioration has come about gradually because of changes in farming and economic pressures. There are other factors, too, such as stone being taken for other uses, and the public damaging walls by clambering over them. But the main problem is that today landowners simply do not need stone walls.

"It's cheaper and quicker for a farmer just to string up a bit of barbed wire, than spend days he can't afford repairing a wall," says self-employed waller Keith Stuffins, from Bath.

"Traditionally it would have been a winter task, to look after your boundaries when you don't need the labour on the land. You don't lay off your workforce, you have them repairing dry stone wall in the depth of winter.

"But where there once would have been seven labourers on a farm, today there's one and somebody occasionally part-time. Gone are the days when labour was so cheap that repairing 100 yards of dry stone wall cost you nothing."

Cost is a major problem with rebuilding crumbling walls. That is why, on a windswept field high on the south Cotswolds, a dozen or so people have sacrificed their Sunday roast and a cosy armchair in front of the Rugby World Cup to learn the art of dry stone walling.

This stretch of old wall has lain crumbling between a footpath and a field of winter barley at Manor Farm in the village of Southstoke near Bath. But after two days a team of volunteers has virtually restored a 30-metre section.

The walling weekend is part of a summer campaign by a coalition of the Cotswolds Countryside Service, The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, and local authorities, designed to heighten public awareness about the sad state of the area's dry stone walls.

Jeff Cherrington, a Cotswold Countryside Ranger, surveys the work enthusiastically. "We hope this suits all purposes," he says. "The farmer gets a bit of wall built and we get a lot of people trained up."

There are more weekends planned, volunteers are surveying damaged walls, and there are information packs for landowners on grants to help them rebuild.

To repair the wall at Manor Farm without volunteers or farm labour would have cost an estimated pounds 40 a metre - and that's using existing stone. Bringing in new stone would have bumped the cost up to pounds 100 a metre.

"In a day or two there's only so much you can get across about how to rebuild a wall," says Keith Stuffins. "What takes months and years - a lifetime to learn - is the skill of being able to pick the right stone to fit in that gap, picking it up the first time rather than the seventh.

"A lot of my work is in people's back gardens, or small landowners, people who have an orchard or a paddock. I do very little for the farming community. Most farmers are perfectly capable of fixing their own walls, laying their own hedges. They're not very keen on the idea of employing somebody to do something they could do themselves."

But, says Charles Hignett, who runs the 400-acre Manor Farm, maintaining stone walls is the last of a farmer's worries: "You simply don't have spare labour to maintain stone walls. Economically it's impossible. That's one problem.

"The other is that being so close to the city we are overrun by people using our land for recreational purposes. We get walkers, people with dogs, people on motor- bikes, cross-country bikers, with no respect for footpaths whatsoever. The end result is that walls are turned over and once the problem begins it's very hard to stop it."

The walling campaign is aimed at influencing both landowners and the public. One of the weekend volunteers is John Uphill, a 50-year-old management consultant from nearby Coombe Down. "I have a dry stone wall in my garden and it's in dire need of some refurbishment. I happened to be driving along yesterday, saw the signs and rearranged my day to get a bit of hands- on experience."

Has the weekend made him more mindful of the state of walls in this area? "Certainly walking from here back to the main road and looking at the poor state of the wall all the way along, it's a case of what's standing and what isn't. We've got to do something about it."

Conservationists admit that events like this are only scratching the surface, and they are limited by their budgets. There is financial help available for landowners. For those living within a designated Environmentally Sensitive Area in the Cotswolds there are grants of pounds 16 a metre for restoration, and a 40 per cent grant for new walls.

But these are part of a conditional package of environmental management requirements. There are also Ministry of Agriculture farm and conservation grants of 25 per cent of the cost of renovation and rebuilding dry stone walls.

Is this enough? Peter Seccombe believes farmers would be more responsive if grants were higher. "In some of the national parks like the Peak District the rate of grants paid is something like 80 per cent, and the difference in the landscape is quite astonishing. An awful lot of farmers have taken up that option.

"If walls are not required agriculturally as much as they used to be, the bottom line is what help can we have? If they're of national importance, maybe there needs to be national funding for it."