Heading west with the curse of Meacher

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The Independent Online
Travelling by rail with Michael Meacher, Labour's environment spokesman, is a perilous undertaking. In common with some of Tony Blair's trendy henchmen, trains just don't seem to like him very much.

When I last turned up to hear him speak, he missed his slot because the train from his Oldham constituency was late. Then I was left stranded in a restaurant because his train - from Leeds - broke down. And the very next day he got stuck again on the way to Cumbria.

So I approached Waterloo station last Thursday with trepidation. We were to travel together to Salisbury for a day with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, entrusting ourselves to South West Trains - which last week cancelled 200 services and provoked the junior transport minister, John Watts, to describe it as "somewhat inept". But the company, in abject apology, was offering free travel, and the trains ran on time. It was only after we parted that the Curse of Meacher struck: my trip home took twice as long as normal.

! PERHAPS the trains were kind because Meacher had come to view what is probably the most scandalous scheme in the Government's road programme, the Salisbury by-pass. This will cross the River Avon on a 20ft embankment, ruining the last remaining view of the cathedral across the watermeadows - imm- ortalised by the painter Constable.

Transport Secretary - and member of Friends of the Earth - Sir George Young has said that the road will not affect the view. He should have got on his bike and joined us at Britford, where the road will go, and seen the sun pick out the spire against a grey sky while snipe rose from the meadows. Perhaps he means that drivers will get a fleeting view as they whizz along the by-pass.

The untouched watermeadows, some of the rarest of their kind in Britain, are among the last remnants of a sophisticated ancient farming practice. In spring, as the sheep were about to lamb, the farmers would flood them from the Avon. The river is fed by underground springs in the nearby chalk hills and stays at an almost constant temperature. So flooding the land warmed it up and fertilised it, stimulating the growth of grass and added calcium, sorely needed by the lambing sheep.

Now the Government's statutory watchdogs - the Countryside Commission and English Nature - are finally beginning to bark. They've long been asleep, not even bothering to turn up for the 1993 public inquiry into the scheme. But the Government should be even more embarrassed. Its 1991 Environment White Paper intoned: "It would be odd to cherish a Constable but not the landscape he depicted."

! NEXT stop, Coombe Bissett, rare chalk downland just bought as a nature reserve by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust - with pounds 240,000 from the National Lottery. The trust has already received more than pounds 1m from the lottery, enabling it to buy rare hay meadows (98 per cent of which have disappeared across Britain), and to extend two other reserves. In all, 20 county wildlife trusts have, largely unnoticed, had pounds 5m of lottery money: some 20 reserves have been set up with it.

Wiltshire Wildlife's director, Gary Mantle, has also pioneered tapping the Government's new landfill tax on dumping rubbish in the ground. He has got pounds 400,000 from it so far, and uses some to help local farmers maintain wildlife sites on their land.

We visited one of them with Meacher in green wellies and Barbour jacket (both, admittedly, lent by the trust) gamely getting on with a double- barrelled landowner with a cut-glass accent. Tim Wheatley-Hibbard complained that badgers had increased from 12 to 80 on his land in the last years. It's an embarrassing topic for conservationists because these are probably the only creatures protected by law for being cuddly rather than endangered. Privately some admit there is no case for preserving them in much of the country. But they dare not say so out loud, for fear of the public reaction. And, as it happens, the badger is the symbol of The Wildlife Trust.

! BUT perhaps the best moment of the day was at Westminster Tube station, now undergoing repair. "Watch out for the gap between the train and the temporary platform" announced the guard. "Unless, that is, you are a politician."

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