Who’d have thought that there is a fashion for hedges? Not the impeccably manicured privet type, nor the laurel that ran amok at our old house, but the hedges that line the fields and roads.
Our outer boundaries were wild country hedges, with hawthorn, blackthorn, bramble, hazel – all the things you needed to keep your stock in and your vegetables safe. By and large the sheep stayed on their side and we stayed on ours.
A sheep with its mind not set on anything will spend twelve hours with its head stuck in a wide metal link fence, until you get so fed up of the plaintive bleating that the farmer is ignoring, that you march out to save its worthless life, and it takes one look at you and unhooks its ears with no difficulty at all and bolts for home. A sheep with its mind set on a lunch of your finest Brussels sprouts, however, is not going to be deterred by a bit of overgrown hawthorn.
I once spent a warm afternoon patrolling the veggie patch, fending off a mother and her three lambs, until the farmer could be brought to remove them. His daughter tried - she led them away by rattling stones in a bucket; but when the promised treat didn’t appear, they opted for the sprouts again, and no amount of bucket-waving would shift them.
Cattle, however, are different. For these, the farmer stretches a thin electrified wire across his sparse, treeless boundaries, and they stay safely inside, munching happily. So convinced are they of the dangers of the wire that it can sometimes be seen replaced with a piece of string.
I’m not sure about cattle. I once had a bad experience involving a herd of cows, a narrow path along a river, and some farmers who didn’t think to tell anyone just where they were intending to drive their large, blundering, panicking beasts. Had there been an Olympic medal for running in wellies, I’d have been up there on the podium.
It doesn’t help that, whilst taking a stroll along the lanes here in cattle country, a herd of bullocks assume that I am their farmer, the bringer of good things (they don’t know about the Really Bad Thing), and inevitably come belting towards that flimsy bit of wire that is the only defence I’ve got. I don’t like it.
So the current initiative to put back hedgerows is a very welcome thing. After years of determined clearance, we now have an active plan to restore the verges of road and field, divide up the parcels of farmland, and slow down water run-off and soil erosion.
The cost is divided between the EU, water management companies, local regions, and the commune. It’s important that the farmers get on board with this; they are going to have to wait a good twenty years for the trees they plant to grow to adulthood - trees which are natural to the area, and which ten years ago they were cutting up for firewood.
And no doubt, at some time in the future, the circle will turn again, and the cattle will all have to re-learn the knowledge of their forefathers with regard to the dangers inherent in touching a flimsy piece of wire (or string).
The Olympics committee should consider adding wellie-running to their programme, because when that happens it’s going to need to be revived, and I’m going to be too old to teach it. In the meantime, the spring is here, the cattle are back in the fields, and the walking season is upon us. I’m off to practise my hurdling.