Fri, 05 Feb 2021
LOCKDOWN has increased people's desire to go out for long walks and enjoy the countryside, but this is proving a headache for Sutton Estates.
The Estate farms a block of land that stretches from Wash Common to the A34 and encompasses the site of the First Battle of Newbury.
The farmer's biggest concern is the damage people are doing to the environment by not sticking to the footpaths in this rural area so near to Newbury. And this year, for the first time, there are sheep grazing in the fields, adding an extra complication.
Most of the farmland is traditionally used for crops, but as part of the crop rotation process it is being used for Environment Focus Areas, with 1,000 sheep currently grazing on the land.
They are there specifically to benefit the environment and help with creating organic matter. After the sheep have grazed on the crops, the plants are turned into manure which is then fed back into the soil to help improve organic matter.
Working farm manager for Sutton Estates Joe Dilibero said: "The saddest thing is that people don’t realise the damage they are doing.
"The footpaths are very wide, but people stray from there and walk on the grass margins around the crops. These are there to encourage the environment and wildlife. By straying from the footpath and walking on these grass areas or across the fields, people are destroying the natural habitat for birds such as lapwings and other ground nesting birds and brown hares."
In order to protect the crops and the sheep, Kevin Smith, who is the contract shepherd looking after the flock, has put signs in place to direct people to stay on the footpaths and has also placed electric fencing around the area where the sheep are grazing.
Mr Smith said: "As quickly as we put the signs up they get thrown away and someone even removed one of the posts holding up the electric fencing that has been put in place."
In fact, one lady was seen ignoring the signs, putting her coat over the fence and climbing over and taking her three dogs across the field.
Mr Smith added: "This is one of the worst places I’ve seen for people not being where they should be. The sheep are pregnant and if dogs worry them they could miscarry as well as be injured – each sheep is carrying at least two lambs and if dog owners get caught letting their pets loose and causing damage, they could be taken to court and fined.
"We don’t want to have to resort to that and we want people to enjoy their walks in the countryside."
He said: "The sheep are shepherded every day and will be here until the middle of March - if people would respect the boundaries and stick to the footpaths they can still enjoy a spectacular walk and let the habitat flourish."
Mr Dilibero said that while the sheep are a short-term concern, the damage to the environment was an ongoing problem that has become even greater during the pandemic because more people are looking for areas to walk.
He added: "Since the first lockdown people have worn away a track almost six metres wide across the fields. The footpaths are well maintained and run along the side of the field, there really is no need to stray."
One of the problems, he said, is that there are two footpaths – one which runs parallel to Valley Road from Wash Common to John Rankin School and the other runs from Fifth Road to Skinner’s Green. Many people like to walk both, but in order to get from one footpath to the other, they take a short cut across a field and are causing a lot of damage in the process.
Mr Dilibero and Mr Smith both said that for the most part people were understanding and when they were politely asked not to stray from the footpath and to not let their dogs run free they comply.
But, Mr Dilibero added: "A lot of people don’t realise that they are not allowed to walk across certain areas of these fields and unfortunately there are some members of the public who think they are entitled to do as they wish, no matter what. It is very difficult for us to keep an eye on the whole area all of the time and we are seeing our fields and environment damaged as the walkers create wide muddy tracks.
"Please respect the environment and consider what you are doing when you don’t stick to the footpaths."
Joe Dilibero and Kevin Smith where walkers have created muddy paths
Joe Dilibero shows the harm it is doing to the environment
Kevin Smith is trying to protect the 1,000 sheep that are grazing in the fields
People have removed the electric fencing...
...and taken down signs