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Country Life editor Mark Hedges discusses Covid ‘exodus’ of Londoners to the countryside

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Country Life editor Mark Hedges discusses Covid ‘exodus’ of Londoners to the countryside

Townies swapping cities for greener pastures rarely understand the countryside and are ‘obsessed’ with their Wi-Fi speeds, according to the editor of rural bible Country Life.

Mark Hedges, who edits the 125-year-old glossy magazine, says the Covid pandemic has sparked a ‘great exodus’ of city-dwellers to the countryside.

But he says not everyone is ‘happy’ with the mass countryside migration of what he calls ‘Twats’ – city workers who only go into the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

In an opinion piece in The Times, the journalist, who grew up in the Cotswolds, took aim at ‘newcomers’ who he said held ‘strong views’ about rural issues such as badger culling but often failed to understand the countryside.

He also said city-dwellers were ‘obsessed’ about Wi-Fi speeds and, unlike traditional countryside residents, didn’t know how to rustle up rural classics such as potted squirrel or tickle a trout.

And he urged newcomers not to criticise Prince Charles in their local pubs, saying that the royal, who has long campaigned on rural and environmental issues, was the ‘countryside’s poster boy’. 

His comments come after wealthy Londoners fled to the countryside in their droves during the pandemic, hoovering up rural properties and purchasing second homes due to the increasing prevalence of working from home.

Londoners spent a record £54.9billion on properties outside the city last year – the highest value on record by far. 

Mark Hedges, who edits the 125-year-old glossy magazine, says the Covid pandemic has sparked a ‘great exodus’ of city-dwellers to the countryside

In an opinion piece in The Times, the journalist, who grew up in the Cotswolds, took aim at 'newcomers' who he said held 'strong views' about rural issues such as badger culling but often failed to understand the countryside

In an opinion piece in The Times, the journalist, who grew up in the Cotswolds, took aim at ‘newcomers’ who he said held ‘strong views’ about rural issues such as badger culling but often failed to understand the countryside

He also claimed city-dwellers were 'obsess' about Wi-Fi speeds and, unlike traditional countryside residents, didn't know how to cook potted squirrel or tickle a trout

He also claimed city-dwellers were ‘obsess’ about Wi-Fi speeds and, unlike traditional countryside residents, didn’t know how to cook potted squirrel or tickle a trout

Meanwhile Taunton in rural Somerset became last year’s property hotspot, seeing property prices rise by a fifth due to the huge increase in demand for country homes.

So how DO you tickle a trout and cook up potted squirrel?  

Potted Squirrel

A perfect countryside starter – rather than a strange way to keep squirrels – potted squirrel is essentially a pate made from the meat of the invasive grey squirrel species.

And while many may baulk at the idea of eating the cute-looking rodent, it is actually encouraged by The British Association for Shooting and Conservation as a way of population control. 

While you can trap and kill squirrels yourself, without expert knowledge it is better to get your meat from your local butcher.

Take two oven-ready squirrels, jointed into three pieces each, and put them into a pot with wine, vegetables such as carrot and onion, and a variety of herbs, such as bay leaf and rosemary.

Bring it to the boil and then let it simmer for five hours before shredding the meat, adding bacon, and pouring into four ramekins. Add some butter to the top, chill for an hour and then serve with bread and chutney.

Tickling a Trout

Tickling a trout might sound like one of those wacky techniques which actually has very little to do with tickling.

But this tried and tested technique mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is not far off when it comes to its description. 

It is also illegal in public places – and is popular with poachers as it means they don’t have to carry incriminating equipment such as nets – so make sure you get permission from whoever owns your chosen stretch of river before you do it.

Trout can be found up and down waterways in the UK. The brown trout lives in streams, rivers, lakes and salt water habitats, while the Rainbow Trout lives in poorer quality water than its native cousin.

While the primary technique for catching trout is fly-fishing, trout tickling involves getting your hands dirty.

Trout, when startled, will often head for a bank. If you lie face down on the bank at the point where the fish was last seen, you can gently slide both hands beneath the bank and move them inwards in an pincer movement.

At this point you then have to gently stroke the underbelly of the fish – tickling – to identify that it is indeed a fish – rather than a rock of a tree root – and identify which way around the fish is.

Once you have established where the head is, smoothly but firmly tighten your head around the gill/fin area.

Then, while keeping your hands on the fish, slowly raise up from the ground wish the fish in your hands.

For those wishing to practice, the advice is to use a bar of soap.

But the sudden influx of townies has led to tension with longer-term residents, who say they are being priced out of their areas.

Meanwhile, farmers have complained that townies are unaware of the rules of the countryside – though they have now been urged to ‘use friendly language’ towards trespassers under changes to the Countryside Code.

Addressing the conflicts in his Times piece, Mr Hedges said: ‘Lockdown brought a great exodus from the cities and rural house prices rocketed.

‘Some though it would be temporary; in fact, with many city workplaces adopting flexible working, it appears that much of the change is here to stay. People who were slaves to their desks have become Twats (working Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the city. 

‘Not everyone is happy about this rural migration. There are two new subjects of rural conversation: Newcomers are obsessed by Wi-Fi speeds and everyone else by telling the newcomers who many decades they have lived there.

‘The newcomers may hold strong views on badgers and the reintroduction of beavers, but unless they also know the difference between straw and hay, rooks and crows, hares and rabbits, they would be better off keeping it to themselves.’

However, Mr Hedges, who took editorship of the Hampshire-based magazine – dubbed the ‘Bible of British Aristocracy’ – in 2016, said there had been some positives.

He said village shops had seen a boost in sales and, in a tongue-in-cheek take on the capital’s coffee culture, could ‘make a fortune if they worked out how to make a latte’.

But, in a wise word of warning, Mr Hedges urged city-dwellers to keep their opinions on Prince Charles to themselves while in the country.

The future monarch, 73, has often been vocal on country and environmental issues, and even guest-edited Country Life in 2013.

And last year, in his latest call for action in the countryside, warned the ‘heart will be ripped out of the British countryside’ if small, family-run farms are allowed to go out of business.

Speaking about Prince Charles, he said: ‘The Prince of Wales is a countryman above all. I have seen him at his happiest laying a hedge planting trees of inspecting his cattle.

‘Do not, if you are a newcomer, criticise him in your local country pub. He is the countryside’s poster boy.’ 

Mr Hedges’ comments come amid rising tension between townies and country folk following the impact of the Covid pandemic.

Londoners rushed to buy country homes and rural second homes during the pandemic, as firms allowed staff to work from home during lockdowns.

Covid lockdowns and the rise of flexible working saw a surge of Londoners travelling outside of the capital, spending a record £54.9bn on properties outside the city last year – the highest value on record by far.

However, the rush for country and second homes brought misery to residents of the most popular towns, with soaring house values pricing young people out of the housing market.

Areas such as Salcombe in Devon, Falmouth, in Cornwall, and Tenby in Wales became property hotspots.

But, in a wise word of warning, Mr Hedges urged city-dwellers to keep their opinions on Prince Charles to themselves while in the country. The future monarch, 73, has often been vocal on country and environmental issues, and even guest-edited Country Life in 2013

But, in a wise word of warning, Mr Hedges urged city-dwellers to keep their opinions on Prince Charles to themselves while in the country. The future monarch, 73, has often been vocal on country and environmental issues, and even guest-edited Country Life in 2013

A map showing the most sought-after second home towns for British city dwellers, with Salcombe, Falmouth, St Ives, Brixham and Newquay in the South West all within the top six in demand

A map showing the most sought-after second home towns for British city dwellers, with Salcombe, Falmouth, St Ives, Brixham and Newquay in the South West all within the top six in demand

Taunton in Somerset was the top house price hotspot last year, with average house prices rising by £56,546 – more than a fifth – while some areas of London actually saw property prices fall. 

In the North Yorkshire village of Robin Hood’s Bay it has been claimed that only 30 per cent of properties are now owned by locals – with all but five in the area near the harbour believed to be either second homes or holiday lets. 

‘Get off my land (please?): The key changes to the Countryside Code – which will see farmers asked to use ‘kinder language’

Farmers used to shouting ‘get off my land’ will instead be told to ‘use friendly language’ towards trespassers under changes to the Countryside Code.

They have also been warned against using ‘misleading’ signs to deter visitors – including claiming they have bulls in their fields.

In an update to the code published by Natural England, landowners are being urged to ask rambling visitors if they are lost and ‘help them get back to paths’.

The changes are part of plans to ‘help the public enjoy the countryside in a responsible and respectful way’.

However, the guidance has instead stoked fears of the countryside turning into ‘a free-for-all for ramblers’.

The guidance says access should be ‘easy for visitors with different abilities and needs’ and encourages landowners to install self-closing gates instead of stiles ‘if possible’.

New guidance has been issued for land managers ‘to help the public enjoy the countryside responsibly’. It includes: 

  • New guidance on keeping rights of way usable, with recommendations on cutting back vegetation and keeping public waterways clear;
  • Instructions on where visitors can walk freely;
  • Guidance on reporting anti-social behaviour, fly tipping and noise disturbances;
  • Guidance on managing and protecting livestock.

The average house in the village now fetches £373,000 – more than 12 times average annual earnings in the area and out of the reach of first-time buyers.

It has become such an issue, that the Government is even said to be planning to introducing punishing council tax bills for second home owners who leave their properties unused. 

For the first time, councils in England will be able to double council tax on unoccupied second homes to boost funding for local services.

Other homes simply left empty could also see the standard council tax rate doubled after 12 months – as opposed to two years at present. The plans are being discussed as part of the Government’s Leveling Up scheme.

Alongside a big increase in property prices, there have also been tensions between city-dwellers and countryside residents over rural rules – such as walking through fields and closing gates.

However, earlier this year it was revealed farmers used to shouting ‘get off my land’ will instead be told to ‘use friendly language’ towards trespassers under changes to the Countryside Code.

They have also been warned against using ‘misleading’ signs to deter visitors – including claiming they have bulls in their fields.

In an update to the code published by Natural England, landowners are being urged to ask rambling visitors if they are lost and ‘help them get back to paths’.

The changes are part of plans to ‘help the public enjoy the countryside in a responsible and respectful way’.

However, the guidance has instead stoked fears of the countryside turning into ‘a free-for-all for ramblers’.

The guidance says access should be ‘easy for visitors with different abilities and needs’ and encourages landowners to install self-closing gates instead of stiles ‘if possible’.

If a farmer finds a trespasser on their land, they are told to ‘ask them if they are lost and help them get back to paths or areas they are allowed on. Visitors rarely mean to trespass.’ 

The guidance does however advise to ‘manage visitors appropriately if they’re acting in an antisocial way’.

On signage, the guidance adds: ‘Make signs clear and easy to follow. Too much information can confuse visitors and cause them to do the wrong thing.

‘Keep any signs in good condition, or remove a sign if the hazard no longer exists. Do not use misleading signage, such as “bull in field” if it is not true.’ 

However, farmers are also warned that they must not keep animals they know to be dangerous in places with public access.

It follows several incidents of walkers, usually with dogs, being killed or injured by cows.

In an update to the Countryside Code published by Natural England, landowners are being urged to ask rambling visitors if they are lost and 'help them get back to paths'

In an update to the Countryside Code published by Natural England, landowners are being urged to ask rambling visitors if they are lost and ‘help them get back to paths’

David Clark, 59, a former Scotland under-21 rugby player, was trampled to death by cows as he walked his dogs in Richmond, North Yorkshire, in September 2020.

The code was updated for the first time in a decade in April last year in response to an increase in litter and dogs worrying livestock as the number of people visiting the countryside soared over lockdown.

The changes, published yesterday, aim to help ‘avoid damage to property, livestock and wider anti-social behaviour’. 

Farmers have also said it should be ‘up to them what works best for their farm’.

Sarah Lee, Director of Policy at the Countryside Alliance, said the updated code has ‘put an onus on landowners’, rather than ramblers, and pointed to concerns over the cost for farmers.

She added: ‘The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns lead to more people getting out and enjoying the countryside which was welcome.

‘However, sadly, there were numerous reports of littering in beauty spots and livestock being spooked by dogs off the lead which in turn, could have heightened anxiety among some living and working in the countryside. Reminders of responsible access are, therefore, always welcome.

‘This new guidance for landowners provides many welcome additions, such as advice on reporting anti-social behaviour and how to report fly-tipping, however, it also puts an onus on landowners to replace stiles with gates. 

‘Stiles have multiple uses from providing a stock proof barrier while allowing people to move freely and it should be up to individual farmers what works best for their farm while welcoming visitors.

‘We would also be concerned over the cost to the farmer of changing field access points. It might be the case that money will be available through the new farming schemes to make land more accessible, but that is not clear at this stage. 

‘It is important to remind visitors that each of us have a personal responsibility to abide by rights of way and respect that the countryside is a full time place of work for many.”

Stuart Roberts, deputy president of of the National Farmers’ Union, also said the refresh was needed to address issues over visitors ‘ensuring dogs are under control and dog waste is binned’.

He said: ‘It’s important to ensure everyone who visits the countryside is provided with greater awareness of the need to keep safe and responsible as well as the role farming plays in shaping our much-loved working farmed landscapes.

‘The NFU has been working closely with Defra and Natural England on a refresh of the guidance for farmers and land managers to bring the Code up to date and help address an increase in access-related issues such as keeping to public rights of way, ensuring dogs are under control and dog waste is binned.

‘The new guidance will help to ensure that the modern-day rights of way network benefits both farmers and the public.’

It comes as one landowner was hauled before a court last week after using razor wire and chains to stop walkers using a public footpath near her home.

Frances Payne, 56, became embroiled in the bizarre row with ramblers whom she accused of causing ‘constant’ problems such as taking drugs, assaults, thefts and vandalism on a beauty spot in Evesham, Worcestershire.

Under the new guidance, landowners have now been given recommendations on making rights of way more accessible for ramblers, including adding self-closing gates instead of stiles. 

Marian Spain, chief executive of Natural England, said: ‘This refreshed advice for land managers has never been more important in helping to ensure we work together to protect our outdoor spaces.

‘I urge all land managers to follow this new advice and continue to help make nature accessible to everyone.’ 

 

 

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