Country Matters: The sharing, caring world of sport

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The Independent Online
WEDNESDAY evening in our parts was cool and grey, but at least it was dry, and well suited to the enterprise. This was a tour of the Frampton Court estate, on the banks of the Severn, organised by enthusiasts in the Vale of Berkeley to demonstrate how closely rural sports are woven into the fabric of the countryside, and how much they benefit the environment.

For various reasons, all five local MPs had declined the invitation to attend, but there was a strong show of councillors, county and district, besides farmers, bird-ringers, sailors, foresters, wildfowlers, badger-fanciers and others. There was also a single member of the League Against Cruel Sports, who had invited himself at the last moment.

Punctually, at 6pm, we set off in convoy on tractor-drawn trailers padded with bales of straw, around a course of eight stops, at each of which experts explained particular activities. Our first halt was in the park, where we parked with our backs to a lake.

Even the most urban of councillors could see that the turf was grazed as short as a golf green's. And there in the distance were the cropping agents: to our right a flock of sheep, and to our left, manoeuvring warily with their heads up, some 200 Canada geese.

These were the subject of our first address, by Rollo Clifford, the genial landowner, who explained how he manages the ancient parkland.

The answer, in short, is to have it mown day and night by sheep and geese; but since five geese eat as much as one sheep, the birds are not unreservedly welcome, and two or three shoots are held every winter to reduce numbers. As a shooting man, Mr Clifford said, he regarded the geese as 'worthy adversaries', and what was more, delicious to eat.

Some listeners stiffened at this news. Were we not within a mile or two of the Slimbridge Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the sanctuary founded and made world-famous by the late Sir Peter Scott? Indeed we were. Our host went on to say that the geese had been introduced by his parents, who had done swaps with Sir Peter in the Forties, and that the birds had bred so well that the surplus now had to be culled, as had that of many other species.

Thanks to the geese and sheep, he added, he can maintain the turf in a state ideally suited to many recreational activities, not least those of ramblers, the pony club and various caravan clubs, all of whom disport themselves in the park's wide acres.

Pivoting on our bales to face the lake, we heard Baz Griffiths, an ace fisherman, expound the benefits conferred on the countryside by his tribe. As he spoke, cormorants were wheeling and diving over the water behind him, and in it, invisible to us, lurked the huge carp - weighing up to 40lb apiece - in whose breeding and capture he specialises.

The turnover of angling last year, Baz said, was pounds 1.7bn: so great is the business created that, if it were banned, another 500,000 people would be thrown on the dole. The angler, he assured us, is a conservationist, a rural policeman, because he is constantly out on the water, monitoring lakes and rivers all over the country for pollution, at zero cost to the community or the Government.

Furthermore, fishermen attract thousands of youngsters to the banks, and there they teach them to respect the environment rather than attack it through the various forms of vandalism they might otherwise engage in.

At the next stop, where dozens of small sailing boats were scudding about another lake, Mr Clifford described the activities of the Frampton Wildlife and Sporting Association, a body with 25 participating organisations. He himself set up FWASA some 15 years ago after fishermen had stormed up his drive, crying, 'The bloody sailors have driven over our lines again] What are you going to do about it?' And the bird-ringers had complained because they had set up their mist-nets only to see Thelwell-type thunderbolts from the pony club gallop straight through them.

His answer was to create the umbrella organisation that now meets twice a year and provides a forum at which grievances can be talked through over a drink. This has proved to be a major factor in keeping the rural peace.

Rolling on along farm tracks, the convoy came to a series of locked gates, for which our host apologised. Were they left open, the place would immediately be invaded, if not by travellers (on the move in large numbers all around), certainly by hooligans hot-rodding and then setting fire to stolen cars. In the past few weeks alone, the estate had had to deal with the remains of three burnt-out vehicles (glass, wire from tyres, engine blocks) that neither police nor councils cared to tackle.

Outside a thick wood, known as the Pheasant Pen, talk switched to shooting. Here our mentor was Alan Franklin, a retired schoolteacher turned amateur gamekeeper.

This covert, he told us, had been planted specially for shooting; without local interest in the sport, it would not exist. He himself put in much time destroying vermin, such as magpies and crows, but his most voracious enemies were foxes. What he left unsaid was the fact that he is obliged to preserve foxes for the hunt to chase.

Next, our attention was drawn to the fact that our trailers had parked almost on top of an extensive badger sett. A local expert, Mike Ounstead, said that there were now thought to be 250,000 badgers in Britain, and that they were so well protected by various Acts that nobody may disturb them without special permission.

For Roger Godwin, the farm manager, the badgers' favoured status posed big problems. For the past 20 years, he has repeatedly 'shoved them back into the wood' by ploughing over their earthworks in the field. Now, under the terms of the 1991 Act, he is was no longer allowed to do that, and he foresees the day when the colony, gradually extending its frontiers, will have taken over the entire field.

So our tour went on, with fresh food for thought at every stop: a blackthorn covert called Pancake, planted purely to hold foxes; another wood favoured by nightingales; hedges left in place (although a menace to farming) to promote wildlife; salt marshes by the river to which wild geese from Russia have been coming every winter since at least 1086, when Roger de Berkeley arrived from France to live just down the Severn and began to keep records.

By the time we repaired to a 15th-century barn for supper and a glass of wine, the councillors, in their thin blue suits, looked chilled to the marrow. When questions were solicited, one man asked why the organisers did not admit that they enjoy hunting, instead of merely claiming (as they had) that it was the most humane method of fox control.

They agreed cheerfully that they do enjoy it, and for once this most vexatious of rural subjects faded into the background as only one facet of a much larger picture.

The man from the League Against Cruel Sports, enigmatic to the last in tinted glasses, held his peace. The message had come over powerfully that country life is complex, and that skilful management is required to preserve the landscapes we know and love.