Rural skills – their importance and how we can preserve them By David Molloy, Rural Skills and Grants Officer
While travelling back through the Langdale Valley, after a short and soggy Easter weekend camping trip to the Lake District, a friend turned to me and said ‘I do like how the fields are so small here’. At the time I simply nodded and agreed as my mind was more focused on regaining core body temperature. Thinking back now, my friend’s observation and expression of appreciation for this feature of the landscape raises a number of important issues, particularly with regards to traditional countryside skills.
As those who have visited the Langdale Valley will know, the landscape is criss-crossed with a mosaic of dry-stone walls and it was these that created the small enclosures that delighted my friend so much. Dry-stone walls are prominent features in many of the UK’s protected landscapes, including here in the Cotswolds AONB. But why are traditional skills, such as dry-stone walling, so important to maintain? What benefits do they provide and what do we risk losing if they disappear?
From the point of view of landscape protection, rural skills tell an important story about how humans have interacted with the landscape over the centuries and how they continue to do so today. They inform us about the geology of the area, predominant land management practises and even the changing dynamic of the countryside’s labour market. For instance, in the Cotswolds AONB, the links between rural skills and limestone is prominent in every town and village. Whether it be in the stone tiles found on rooftops, the use of lime for mortaring and rendering properties, or in the construction of the dry-stone walls in the surrounding countryside. These skills are integral to maintaining the landscape that we see around us and without the craftsmen proficient in these skills we would be in danger of losing what makes the Cotswolds and many other protected areas special.
Of course, the benefits of rural skills go beyond enhancing the visitor experience. Traditional skills such as hedgelaying and coppicing both make a significant contribution to local biodiversity by providing wildlife corridors and diverse woodland habitats. The resurgence of woodland coppicing over the past few years is very welcome in this respect and it can only be hoped that other rural skills will follow this path. But why is it that so many rural skills are perceived to be dying out? One argument is that in a world driven by the market economy, traditional methods of countryside management, such as dry-stone walling or hedgelaying, are no longer cost effective. After all, why spend thousands of pounds repairing a dry-stone wall, when a post and rail fence costing a fraction of that would do the same job? Indeed, with the ever increasing financial pressures placed on UK farmers and land managers, it is understandable why traditional methods of field boundary maintenance have fallen by the wayside.
As with many issues in countryside management, it is necessary to
look at reasons beyond cost-effectiveness for the work that we do. A
Cotswolds AONB or Lake District National Park criss-crossed by post and
rail fencing is a stomach turning thought.
Traditional skills are our link to the past. They tell us about who we are and how we got here. They help form the protected landscapes which attract over 260 million visitors each year and which contribute over £20 billion to the economy in England*. At the local level, the impact of traditional skills is far reaching, particularly with regards to rural jobs. In the Cotswolds, hedgelayers help generate greater levels of coppice woodland management due to the need for stakes and heatherings. Similarly, the demand for lime and limestone products for rural skills supports the quarrying industry in the area. The long term loss of these skills would therefore not only be detrimental to the character of the surrounding landscape, but also to the rural economy. So what can be done to reverse this trend?
Financial incentives to encourage landowners and farmers to employ rural skills practises is without doubt key. The inclusion of payments for skills such as dry-stone walling and hedgelaying in Defra’s Countryside Stewardship scheme is indeed welcome in this respect. Beyond this, it is essential that the traditional methods and techniques of rural skills are passed on to future generations. To achieve this, it is vital that the training of these crafts is facilitated. Learning centres such as the Dorset Rural Skills centre, the Derbyshire Eco Centre and the various agricultural colleges around the UK, all play a pivotal role in the continuation of these skills.
The purpose of providing rural skills training however, should not be limited to the development of expertise alone. Here in the Cotswolds AONB, we have been running rural skills training courses for over 14 years. In that time it has been noticeable how the interest in heritage crafts has increased. Why the sudden clamour for traditional skills you might think? From our experience, many people attending our courses do so out of an intrigue for the skills in question. ‘I’ve always wanted to give it a go’ is a phrase I often read when the feedback forms come in. While their interest may seem short-term and somewhat wistful, this ‘give it a go’ crowd are integral to the long term survival of rural skills. Although their physical contribution to these skills may stop at the end of the course, we know that they go away with a deeper appreciation of these skills and are only too willing to tell friends and family of their experience. The significance of producing such rural skills ambassadors should not be underestimated.
The UK has a rich history of rural skills. Providing land managers are adequately supported, training provision facilitated and the public actively engaged, then these skills and their imprint on our landscapes (including the small enclosures of the Langdale Valley) should be here for many years to come.
*So much more than Just a View – England’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks, http://c-js.co.uk/1slWTEK
For further information on Cotswolds Rural Skills visit www.cotswoldsruralskills.org.uk
Contacted January 2017 - believed to be correct