Countryside and Rights of Way Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 1st November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative 3:45 pm, 1st November 2000

My Lords, I apologise to the House for not having been present in Committee. I would have supported the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Peel, at the time.

From a purely practical farming point of view, the Government are missing an important trick. They seem to forget that grassland or meadow land, particularly on hill farms, is often a link between the nearest access road and the open hill. During the summer growing months of June, July and August, it is very important that such land should not be disturbed if the farmer intends to take a crop of hay or silage from it.

The Government have said that cultivated land will be excepted, but hill grassland is not normally in any form of rotation. It would normally be broken perhaps only once every 10 years, or perhaps not at all if constant improvement was possible with lime and fertiliser. In those circumstances, it could not possibly come under the regular cultivation exception. In any event, as most hill farmers know, it takes two or three years to establish a good sward from a directly re-seeded meadow before it is fit for hay or silage.

Another important reason for not disturbing the fields in the summer is to protect certain ground-nesting birds. When I was the Minister for Rural Affairs in Scotland, I visited SSSIs in the Outer Hebrides--that may be a long way from England, but the issues are the same--where the farmers received management agreements provided that they did not cut the hay until 1st August. That enabled corncrakes and other ground-nesting birds such as curlews to nest in the hay. The birds would be fledged by the end of July or the beginning of August. There was therefore a double reason why the ground should not be disturbed by people using it for access to open hills.

There are good reasons to support the amendments. Winter keep is essential for hill farms. If it can be taken only from a few meadows or grassland fields around the farm that are likely to be used by the general public for access to open hills, those fields should be kept clear of footsloggers during the hay period, from the end of May until well into August. That would enable the hay to grow to best advantage and would avoid disturbance of ground-nesting birds, which is often a problem on such land. We should give the amendments a fair wind, even if we have to come back to the issue at Third Reading.