Opinion: Keeping walkers off private land is a balancing act

During the lockdown we have adopted a relaxed approach to those taking their hour of exercise where permissive footpaths are not.

I have the luxury of space, to walk, think, escape my wife and children. Now is not the time to take the wrong tone with people trying to do the same.

On the whole, these encounters go something like this:

“Hello, how are you doing? Don’t worry today, but just so you know for the future, this isn’t a footpath. What extraordinary times we are living in.”

“We’ve just planted that field with wheat, and that one over there, yes, that’s right, the weedy one with patchy yellow bits – it goes to make vegetable oil.”

“Follow that gorgeous hedge, be sure to listen to the birdsong, and eventually you will reach the footpath. It will bring you out…blah blah blah.”

See also: Fresh advice issued on use of footpaths during coronavirus crisis

Nine times out of 10, the outcome of such a meeting leaves me and the other party feeling good about life. Lots of “nice to meet you”, “I’m terribly sorry”, “keep up the good work”.

One time out of 10, however, it doesn’t go so well. These conversations begin the same way, but there are usually signals of what is to come.

Sir David Attenborough would describe the “one in 10” as “like a puffer fish sticking out its prickles”.

“Hello, how are you?” I begin, being sure to respect everyone’s 2m. “Don’t worry today, but just so you know for the future, this isn’t a f…”

For those familiar with the comic Viz, picture Farmer Palmer with his shotgun bellowing “get off my land.” That was me. Apparently.

Before I have a chance to finish the F word, my sentence is met with a spear tackle of apoplexia. “Are you telling me that the Ordnance Survey is wrong?” Or worse still, “I don’t care”.

I take a smooth intake of breath and maintain the jovial approach. Rule number one, don’t slip into patronising, condescending or matronly tones.   

I try the “I am sorry, I know it may look like a footpath, but…” line, or “I’ve made the same mistake myself; Ordnance Survey maps can be misleading”.

But a puffer fish isn’t for turning.How the rest of this conversation continues is somewhat irrelevant. The outcome is sadly inevitable. I am perceived as the curmudgeon. The encounter will without question be recounted time and again.

Rest assured, there will only be one side at fault. Worse still, I will have somehow represented all UK farmers at that brief moment in time.

For those familiar with the comic Viz, picture Farmer Palmer with his shotgun bellowing “get off my land.” That was me. Apparently.

I don’t like feeling in the wrong when I have done nothing wrong. Meetings with a new audience should be seen as an opportunity to engage and enthuse.

But it isn’t as simple as that. We all have good days and bad days. I reflect. I, too, am at fault. I need to do a better job of communicating with a new audience.

Less ambushing on a farm track, more tweets, Instagram posts and information boards around the farm, updates in the parish newsletters or local paper. Anything goes and we can always do more. But we are making progress.

There are a huge number of farmers doing a fabulous job getting their story about British farming to a wider audience during lockdown. Keep it positive and keep it up.

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