Country Matters: Wings of fury among the fruit trees

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TO MOW an area of grass about 40 yards by 10 may not sound a very challenging proposition. The snag is that this is my orchard, and that as well as a dozen fruit trees it contains my four beehives.

Last summer the bees established such a reign of terror that I gave up mowing their patch altogether. After I had taken off the honey in June they became so aggressive that they established air supremacy, denying humans access to the area.

Why not just let the grass grow and be done with it? The answer is that if the orchard is unkempt it offends my eye. Whenever I go down to the vegetable garden I like to look across and see the fruit trees standing in a neat sward.

Of course, there is an alternative to mechanical mowers, and that is sheep, which will certainly eat the grass off, given the chance. Yet almost every time we have let sheep into the orchard, disaster has ensued.

When we had our obstreperous ram, Agamemnon, I was haunted by visions of him being stung in some sensitive spot, getting a hive in his sights and giving it one of his fearsome charges. The resulting explosion might have been hilarious on film, though less amusing for anyone who had to clear up the wreckage.

Our recent setback was caused by those monstrous wethers, Freddie and Thomas. Superannuated pets, who should have gone to the knacker years ago, these great bruisers have so ingratiated themselves with us that no finger can be lifted against them. Yet it was our fault, rather than theirs, that we gave them access to the orchard last September.

No matter that the trees were protected by rabbit netting round their stems. Within minutes, the sheep, ignoring the lush grass, had reached up above the wire and stripped the bark off an apple, a pear and our one and only quince.

The trees were four or five years old, and just coming into full production. Now they seemed doomed. But my wife coated the bare trunks and branches with oil and bound them up with strips of porous linen torn from old sheets, in the hope that an emergency skin might save them. Whether or not it has, we still cannot be certain. All three trees have come into leaf and the apple is now a riot of blossom, but we are afraid that this may be a final spasm before they give up the struggle and die.

In any case, sheep are now banned from the orchard, and I am determined to keep the grass cut by normal means. There are various subterfuges which I can adopt - principally to mow in the early morning or late evening, when the bees are not flying, or when rain is falling hard enough to keep them indoors.

Yet even at those propitious moments mowing is nervous work, especially in the immediate environs of No 3 hive, which houses the most vicious colony. Bees do not like vibration, so an engine passing close by their front door always fetches out a few militants. Still less to they appreciate having their dwelling jolted or thumped: one accidental knock and they launch a mass protest.

Cutting at sundown on Tuesday, I had an added distraction in the form of the fox about which I wrote last week. I had barely started when I saw him emerge from the wood and sit down in the middle of our top field. From that moment I found it impossible to keep my eyes on the job: every time I turned for a new strip, I had to have another look.

The result was that I soon nudged No 2 hive, whose occupants tend to be dozy. A few spilled out on to the flight board, but very few took off. Yet when something touched the back of my head I leapt forward and swatted violently, only to find that it was an elder branch hanging out of the hedge.

I looked up the hill. The fox had moved along, but was still in view. I carried on, looked up again . . . and bumped No 3. Out poured the warriors, by the hundred. Suddenly the air was whizzing with angry bees, barely visible in the failing light. I shut down the engine, jumped out of range, and, after a few minutes lurking in the shadows, decided to call it a day. Whether I keep up my cutting during the summer remains to be seen: at the moment, the matter is delicately poised.

I HAD faint hopes that when a man was fined pounds 1,200 for throwing paper out of the window of his car, the case might put the frighteners on other motorists and discourage them from littering the countryside. Alas, the fine was commuted to a pittance, and the cry is still 'They come]'. Easter began it: during the holiday a fresh scatter of rubbish appeared along the banks of our lane, and last weekend brought more fall-out.

Hardened as I am to collecting bottles, drink cans, fast- food boxes, cigarette packets and chocolate-bar wrappers, I was nevertheless amazed by the succession of objects I found one morning. First there was a child's seat, thrown into the hedge. Fifty yards further down, a fluffy grey toy dog lay on the bank. Another 50 yards and I found an instruction manual for a Citroen, then a wing-mirror, then a sun-flap wrenched from its mountings above the windscreen.

I began to think that a load of rebellious children had been staging a riot as they were driven past . . . and in a way I was right. It turned out that the car had been stolen by drunken hooligans, who had been gradually stripping it as they roared through the night.

Such outbursts are mercifully rare: far more irritating is the deliberate use of woods and fields as rubbish tips - and here we recently notched up a notable victory. A friend who tirelessly walks the footpaths was incensed to find that somebody had driven a few yards into a wood and there emptied the accumulated garbage out of his car. Poking over the papers with her stick, she turned up the semi-transparent copy of a credit-card transaction and took it home with her.

Although the name of the card-owner was illegible in daylight, it sprang out boldly when laid on a sheet of white paper. Armed with his details - though not his address - my friend wrote to the credit-card company, asking them to forward the piece of paper to its signatory, together with a note saying that if he did not immediately return to the site and remove his rubbish, he would be liable to prosecution and a substantial fine.

She did not seriously expect any result: rather, she hoped to give the man a jolt and make him think twice before befouling other rural retreats. Imagine her surprise when, a couple of weeks later, she found a message tied to a tree at the scene of the crime.

By then, as it happened, a farmer had deposited a big bale of silage in the mouth of the track to deny access to hippie wagons. The barricade had nothing to do with the rubbish - but the vandal was not to know this: supposing his persecutor to be male, he had written a wildly obscene note, using terms by no means appropriate in female company.

At first my friend was flustered by this barrage of abuse; but when she realised how rattled her adversary must have become - first to return and clean up, second to write so intemperately - she reckoned it was game, set and match to her.