SHEEP OWNERS FIGHT TO RETAIN ANCIENT RIGHT OF GRAZING
The tranquillity of the Forest of Dean is being disturbed by a battle that pits the area's traditions against the objections of incomers.
by Audrey Gillan
Saturday July 17, 2004
The Guardian, p. 8,
Sandwiched between the rivers Severn and Wye, the Forest of Dean has always been known as an insular place with strange ways.
This ancient Gloucestershire forest has its own dialect and traditions, including the right for any male aged over 21, born within the Hundred of St Briavels (the forest), who has worked in a pit for a year and a day, to open and operate his own mine.
But another tradition is tearing apart what the locally born playwright Dennis Potter called "this heart-shaped land".
The right to run sheep through the forest has been contentious for years, but allegations of harassment and intimidation have brought the issue to a head and the Forest of Dean council is investigating how it can use antisocial behaviour orders to bring some of the foresters and their unruly livestock to heel.
Some locals say the sheep mess on public paths, eat their gardens and cause traffic hazards as they meander down the middle of the road. Drive through the forest and you will see hundreds of sheep grazing in fields and under the largest number of oaks in any forest in Europe. But you will also come across them as you turn a bend, on pavements, on verges and munching prize begonias.
Known as commoners, the sheep owners enjoy the right to graze their sheep freely in the 11,300-hectare (28,000-acre) forest and they want to keep it that way. There are 100 members of the Commoners' Association, though not all run sheep. Nicknamed sheep badgers, a term derived, they think, from the verb to badger, they argue that running sheep is what makes their forest and way of life unique and it should be maintained.
In 2001 the association drew up an agreement with the local council, Forest Enterprise and other bodies that policed how they ran the sheep. But Roger Horsefield, a Labour councillor, says the agreement is useless and he has been inundated with complaints from people tired of living with sheep on their doorstep. He wants the agreement redrawn.
It has now blown up into a row which would have given Potter, who used the forest as a backdrop for tales of incest and corruption, a rich plotline.
"There has been a lot of protest about dirt, disease and damage," Mr Horsefield said. "I like to see the sheep around, perhaps in the woods, but I don't like to see them in the villages. They get in every where, they make a mess, they eat the flowers. The majority of people who live here think it's a problem. It's only the few that keep the sheep that want to keep it as it is."
The forest was sheep-free for 18 months after a cull as a result of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Before the cull there were 5,500 sheep. Now there are 2,000.
"We had a year and a half with no sheep and people began to relax," Mr Horsefield said.
"They left their gates open and they weren't sweeping up the sheep mess. They weren't living on their nerves as they went round the bends in the road."
Yesterday the councillor counted 83 sheep in the road during one short walk. Look over his garden wall and there they are, bleating and eating. "What we need is an agreement that works. I am not against sheep in the Forest of Dean. Forest Enterprise let them in, now they should contain them with a fence or shepherds or a bit of both.
"If there's a fence or wall on either side of the road and the sheep cross it, they can charge them with trespass and the sheep badger will have to pay a fine. With regard to sheep mess, the sheep badger should clean it up or the council will do it and the sheep badger should pay the bill."
It costs the council £12,000 a year just to clean up droppings.
Beside a farmhouse window with a sweeping view of the Severn, four members of the Commoners' Association are discussing their rights with a Tory councillor and feel Mr Horsefield is encroaching on their way of life. They are aware that the issue may be turned into a political football, but the Tories are the only ones listening. They claim they are ready to compromise.
Mick Holder, the Commoners' Association's secretary, said: "There are obviously communal areas in the Forest of Dean where these free roaming sheep enter and pass through a community. When they pass through, sometimes they stop and have five minutes' rest and as there's no public conveniences for sheep, they might go on the side of the road. We are aware that there has been considerable concern about this over the years."
But he cites a police survey which says the road traffic accident rate rose by 30% in the months when the sheep were absent from the forest.
Commoning, he says, was a means of alleviating the poverty endemic in the forest area, but "the Forest of Dean is no longer a poor man's paradise, it's a rich man's fantasy area".
"We accept people coming in to the Forest of Dean, we are not prejudiced. If you want to sell your house in London for £500,000 and buy next door for £150,000, you can come and be our neighbour and we will treat you as a neighbour, but you must treat us the same way."
But the commoners say they are prepared to sit down and chat, though perhaps not with Mr Horsefield, whom they call an "extremist".
In the forest, you can find supporters for both sides. Alan Baker, a caretaker who has lived in the area all his life, says the situation has worsened since they brought in the new sheep after foot and mouth. "The other ones were born here and understood the traffic. These new ones don't seem to have any sense."
In the post office, the owner, who did not wish to be identified, said the sheep did not bother him, despite dozens of them loitering in the road outside. Perhaps the sheep will be prepared to compromise.