Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wire in the Soul

I’ve just finished reading a review copy of Rob Collister’s latest collection of mountain essays, ‘Days to Remember’. I’ve met Rob once at a meeting of the John Muir Trust at Plas y Brenin when the trust were trying to get a Welsh JMT group off the ground. I knew that like myself, Rob had settled in North Wales a long time ago and had come to consider this brooding, wet place as home. Reading his beautifully constructed essays on all aspects of his mountain life, it was when he touched upon matters of a green hue that I began to shift uneasily in my chair. Particularly when reading his observations relating to the sponsored despoliation of the natural environment.

‘Sponsored by whom’ might ask? Well, at risk of upsetting probably the majority of people reading this, sponsored by the EU through its insane agricultural grants policy! You see, we might close our eyes to the overstocking of the uplands with sheep to rake in subsides; we might choose to ignore huge agri-barns, tracks being gouged out of hillsides to create access tracks, ponds being drained, copses being cut down to create more pasture or arable land; hedgerows removed and wetlands drained etc etc. We can shrug our shoulders at the explosion of wind turbines and hydro pipelines appearing across the Welsh countryside-after all, 'it’s green innit!'- but there is yet another creeping malaise spreading its tendrils far and wide across the uplands...stock fencing.

Vast areas of the countryside now being fenced off. Areas which as Rob points out, ‘have never been fenced before’. I’ve noticed this myself on my peregrinations across the open spaces of north Wales, a rash of ugly, barbed wire topped grey/green fencing, criss-crossing the once wide open spaces. Ugly symbols of greed over conservation and visual amenity. ‘Greed’, yes well here’s thing thing and get this....Farmers can claim a subsidy of £9.00 per metre to put up stock fencing on their land yet they can get fence contractors to erect stock fencing at just £3.00 a metre. Yes... you’ve got it; putting up fences in areas which have never traditionally been fenced is a money making scam! Why bother doing what good farmers do. That is, managing the land in a sustainable way, when you can sit back, do absolutely nothing and rake in EU grants for desecrating our open spaces!

Its not just greedy farmers and landowners who are fencing off the countryside. The National Trust-not an organization I must admit, I have a lot of time for when it comes to environmental matters- are busy parceling off their north Wales estates with brutal alacrity. Take their Gelli Iago estate which includes Yr Wyddfa summit. I used to wander freely all over the beautiful wild expanses above Nantmor. More especially when I was exploring and putting up new rock climbs on the then under exploited little crags under the spine of upland which separates Nantmor from the Gwynant Valley. As soon as the NT acquired the estate they started erected miles of high stock fencing without even offering the walker a single stile to negotiate this pointless, ugly barrier.

Mini bolt/fence cutters. Recommended for anyone walking in the Welsh hills these days!

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, The NT should stick to running stately homes and leave wild land management to organizations like the JMT who actually care about protecting the natural environment.

I recently read and reviewed American environmental writer, Ken Ilgunas's ‘Trespassing across America’. His epic journey south from Canada to the Bay of Mexico, following the controversial proposed line of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Crossing the ‘open’ spaces of the American mid-west, the author was struck by just how obsessed farmers and landowners were with parceling off their land with ugly fencing and barbed wire. Add in the factor that hikers are an unknown quantity in these areas and treated as vagrants. Where knocking on a homestead door to ask for water often involves staring down the barrel of a gun, then you wonder how rural society came to this? Ken, like Edward Abbey before him laments the invention of barbed wire. A physical and political symbol of exploitation, greed and the death of freedom.

Back here in North Wales, the same arguments apply. As Rob points out in his book, just why do farmers top their fences with barbed wire anyway? Its pointless and useless for containing sheep as they are not generally adept at hurdling 4 or 5 foot fences. As for cattle or horses; again they generally won’t jump over a barrier but if they did, they risk being torn open on the barbed wire. And as for people...well, which outdoor person hasn’t had to climb over a barbed wire fence and cut their hand or had their clothing ripped open. Certainly I have,many times. In fact, I often carry a small pair of wire cutters for such occasions now.

So there you have it. We the general public and outdoor community are having our freedom to roam OUR open spaces, increasingly curtailed and restricted by EU sponsored vandalism. Indeed, how else would you describe the blight of ever increasing subsidized fence erection in the countryside but as vandalism? When even our highest mountains are being fenced in, you know that in the crazy world of agricultural subsidies something has to give. At the moment it looks like the freedom to roam unhindered by obstacles and the right to view a mountain vista without the visual blight of fencing are losing out in a big way to greed.

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