30 June 2000

Two survivors from a

simpler farming age

One of the glories of British

agriculture is the sheer

variety of farms and farmers.

David Lovibond visited

a couple who illustrate

the point nicely

PEOPLE laughed at us not spraying, leaving the hedgerows and living in a tumbledown house. Now all this is the fashion and everybody thinks they have a right to say what we do here."

On a day of rainstorms, west Wilts is a dripping countryside of steep little hills, narrow upland lanes steaming in the brief sunshine and long green tunnels burrowing under the arching trees.

In the heart of this secluded landscape between the pretty villages of Biddestone and Slaughterford, Liz and Ray Hodges have 65ha (160 acres) of unimproved limestone grassland, wood and hay meadow, the majority designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest – but for which they have resolutely refused offers of financial help.

The Hodges of Honeybrook Farm are survivors from an earlier, simpler farming age. A small suckler herd of 36 Hereford cows, fewer than 100 sheep and a scrap of spring barley provide a bare living for the Hodges and their 14 cats. The (probably) eighteenth century one-up-one-down rubble-stone house with its later lean-to accretions has no central heating or hot water – water of any kind was only connected in the 1980s.

Lizs father, who died 10 years ago, gave up milking with the advent of bulk tankers in the 1960s, although as Liz says "we only used to make enough milk to make a rice pudding". Generally a picture of smiling benevolence, Mrs Hodges is irritated by some of the ironies of modern agriculture.

"Farmers in dads time took the subsidies for grubbing up hedges and are getting paid again for putting them back. We get nothing and farmers who kept their land the way people like it cant manage on their incomes."

English Nature says Honeybrook Farm, which partly straddles the By Brook and lies within the Cotswold Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty, was made an SSSI in recognition of the national importance of its herb-rich meadows (97% of lowland meadows have disappeared since 1945) and the quality of the farms limestone grassland.

Herb-rich

"Designation is not a ticket to collect money," says Patrick Cashman, a conservation officer with English Natures Wilts team. "SSSI owners are given a list of operations which would damage the site and the law requires them to consult us before those operations either begin or continue."

But Mr Cashman says the emphasis is on consultation and English Nature accepts "there has to be a viable landscape so that people can afford to manage the countryside in a sympathetic way. If farmers are threatened by financial constraints and want to change the farming regime then they may be offered support". English Nature is in the process of drawing up Site Management Statements for all SSSIs "which will identify the ideal management for the features of interest" and can mean cash help for suggested improvements.

Honeybrook Farm has had its statement and English Nature seems almost anxious to help. "We are aware of the difficulties," says Mr Cashman. There is also the likelihood that the Hodges could join the Countryside Stewardship scheme and would be eligible for payments to support the present benign regime.

But the Hodges remain impervious to official blandishments. "Money doesnt talk to me," says Liz. "If we were in their schemes we couldnt keep sheep in the meadows in winter, and they want fewer beasts on the grassland – but we dont have enough land for that."

Public access

Lizs greatest fear is that public funding would mean greater public access. "I dont see why I should give people somewhere to have their holidays. We have no footpaths on the farm but I have to spend my weekends on patrol, people are just coming out of the woodwork."

Nor is Liz sure that English Nature understands her concerns. "They say cows cause more damage than people, but a cow cant dig up orchids with a spade."

Patrick Cashman thinks the Hodges suspicions arise because farmers generally "dont like authority" and smaller farmers particularly "are not used to contracts and business agreements".

Unworldly and charmingly disdainful of officialdom they may be, but the Hodges are proud of the high opinion English Nature has of their land.

Nonetheless, Liz regrets the designation. "I would much prefer it if we werent an SSSI. I worry that we might damage something accidentally and that English Nature will compulsory purchase us. I would just like a choice… and my choice is to live here in peace."

Above: Liz and Ray Hodges.

Right: The Hodges 160 acres of unimproved limestone grassland, wood and hay meadows are mainly within a designated SSSI.

Membership of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme would mean sheep couldnt be kept in the meadows in winter, point out the Hodges.