Adam Henson's farm talk: countryside access
If you watched Lambing Live on BBC Two, you’ll know that I spent a lot of time in the beautiful Westmorland fells. It’s one of Britain’s most spectacular landscapes and a magnet for weekend walkers as well as serious hikers.
The weather wasn’t always at its best during our stay, but it didn’t deter the outdoor types. Whenever I had a break from filming, I’d glance towards the distant hillsides and see hardy folk wrapped up in waterproofs and anoraks. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised because, although the climate was hostile at times, the local hospitality was always warm and generous. In fact, the nearby town of Kirkby Stephen was the first town in the area to be awarded Walkers are Welcome status, back in 2009. It’s a national scheme that gives recognition to places that offer extra provisions for walkers, such as surveys of local paths and an easy means of reporting problems with rights of way.
But this hasn’t come about because of pressure from the visitors; it’s the community of Kirkby Stephen that is the driving force. Local residents, traders and the town council have worked together to make sure walkers get the best out of this spectacular corner of north-west England.
It’s a world away from the outdated image of the angry farmer leaning on his gate telling ramblers to “get orf my land”. But just a decade ago, you might have been led to believe that this was the norm, as the issue of the public’s right to roam topped the news agenda. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) opened up around two million acres of land in England, allowing people to walk freely on mapped areas of mountain, moor, heath and common land. At the time, some people took pleasure in the idea of the Ramblers being pitted against the landowners over what was best for rural England. There were also plenty of naysayers predicting chaos in the countryside, with hoards of pleasure-seekers trampling over fields and meadows. Of course, we now know that the horror stories were mostly scaremongering and, on the whole, CRoW has worked successfully.
I think the general view today is that farmers are much more welcoming to the public, and in return people are more responsible. It’s all about balance. Farmers are pretty vigilant at keeping the footpaths clear and ensuring that gates and stiles are in good condition. Meanwhile, most walkers realise they have to keep dogs on leads when they’re near livestock and need to close gates behind them. It’s very much a relationship between the farmer and the general public and I think it’s very important also for farmers to understand that the landscape belongs to the nation. In short, though we work it, we need to share it. The visitors who enjoy the great outdoors have to be viewed as our customers.
Therefore, we need to consider our image and I believe that customer service is vitally important. We have to think about the way we market farming and agriculture to consumers. When ramblers go astray, a polite approach, explaining where they’ve gone wrong, is a much better way of getting the message across than scaring people off with the sight of a 12-bore shotgun. So long as farmers take their responsibilities seriously and visitors stick to the footpaths and bridleways, then everyone’s happy.
Speaking as someone who has a farm attraction that is open to the public, I always welcome people on to the farm. But at the same time I completely respect my landlord’s view that he doesn’t want people traipsing all over the place. Again, it’s a balancing act.
Naturally there needs to be private areas for farming families, away from the public gaze. The people who work the land still need their privacy, but a little mutual respect goes a long way.
The success of TV and radio programmes about rural Britain and the array of walking and countryside magazines now available are proof that people feel a connection with farming. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a real hunger for knowledge about the landscape we manage, the animals we rear and the crops we grow. As farmers, we need to be grateful and do all we can to hold on to that positive feeling towards us.