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Features

A Visit to the Calais "Jungle"

I deliberately put the word "jungle" in inverted commas as, despite it being the 'home address' used by inhabitants there, it completely inappropriately describes the most remarkable community of hopeful people living under the most appalling conditions.

Here is an international community of people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Iraq who are either fleeing political oppression and conflict or are genuinely seeking a better life in a stable, prosperous Europe and in particular in the UK.  

Those we talked to clearly see the UK as the most welcoming country with the international language of English being a particular attraction.  Many also have compatriots already living here who will assist newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers.

But what was I doing spending a day in the camp at Calais? One could justifiably be accused of 'voyeurism' or worse of self-interest - unless such a visit is going to provoke further positive action.  It is too early to say what that action might be although ideas are floating around in the head.

But to return to the camp.  It is literally 75 minutes away from St Pancras Station, a journey by Eurotunnel, plus 15 minutes in a hire car and there you are in the camp of mainly plastic shelters supported by wooden stakes driven into the ground - and juxtaposed with the well-appointed houses lining the outskirts of Calais.

Three gendarmes and five traffic cones on the track leading into the camp were the only minor obstruction on our way in.  The presentation of a single passport was sufficient for the cones to be removed and for my companion and I to drive a further 100 yards, park by the side of the track and then go on foot to meet residents and volunteers.

The bulldozed campThe bulldozed camp

We crossed the vast bare area where three quarters of the camp was obliterated by bulldozers back in March.  They chose a filthy day with the camp deep in mud, so, perhaps cynically, attempting to persuade those being evicted that anything would be better than that camp.

Into the camp library "Jungle Books"  (all in English) in a small tent run by an Afghan pharmacist who had been there for three months, leaving his mother behind as he took the perilous journey through Turkey and Greece.  His journey was recorded on the wall of the library in ‘post it’ notes pinned across a map of Asia and Europe.

Then to a small group of Afghan men being taught English by a young British woman from London.

Into the empty and peaceful "Church" - a large marquee with four seats but with pictures of Christ, Madonna and Child and St George slaying the dragon. I am moved to tears.

We walk back across the waste land to the camp proper.  We have conversations with individuals, all too willing to tell their stories, but unwilling to be photographed for fear of identification. The majority of them carry smart phones: "I speak to my family once a month". At no point do we feel threatened and are met only with politeness, a firm handshake and that willingness to talk.

A Sudanese man with a bicycle approaches me. "If you give me £100, my brother in Cardiff will pay the money into your account. Here, you can speak to him!" I'm handed the phone and give the brother, Kalifa, my e-mail address for him to drop me a line so that I can give him my account number, assuring him that I would arrange for the money to be given to his brother in the jungle.......I'm still waiting!

It was a glorious, cloudless and warm spring day which perhaps gave a false impression of the awful conditions under which the migrants have been and still are living.

Tents...Tents... ...or white metal boxes...or white metal boxes

They live cooped up in these small 12 foot x 12 foot plastic covered shelters with portaloos nearby and the odd shower. Generators were providing electricity to small businesses that have sprung up - among them a hairdresser, food and second hand clothes shops.

Alongside the camp and through the impenetrable wire one can see rows of enormous and faceless white metal containers which provide “better” accommodation for those prepared to give up their identity by having their finger prints taken so they can be tracked. I know I would prefer the plastic, the humanity and sense of community to the inhuman metal.

During the day we meet only three women (from Sudan), walking along the road beside the camp on their way to the heavily guarded area set aside for women and children from which we are, understandably, turned away by the gendarmes on the gate.

The women have been in the camp for four months. Their only ambition is to get to England. They have yet to attempt the journey: “Under what circumstances would you consider returning to Eritrea?” – “That is not an option.”

A young Sudanese man tells me: “I was an IT graduate from the University of Khartoum and politically active within the opposition to Al-Bashir’s regime, but feared for my life and was forced to leave the country. My only ambition is to get to England – I cannot return home. I have attempted on four occasions to climb onto lorries in Calais bound for England – look at my bandaged hand which I damaged when I fell off one of the trucks.”

We are struck by the remarkable, predominantly young women volunteers from Colchester, London, and the Findhorn community in Scotland, teaching English to groups of men, cooking 1,000 meals a day to be transported either to the jungle or to those migrants that have been sent down the road to Dunkirk, and sorting the donated clothes and tins of food in a large warehouse 3 miles from the Jungle.  Many of them come over for three or four days.
Here we got the impression that there could be better coordination of effort - that a permanent presence is required.  Someone needs to be looking more strategically to see how to enable our fellow humans to return, not their countries of origin, but to a position where they can make a contribution to society.  

So many clearly have the education and skills to make that contribution - rather than staying trapped in this awful state of limbo not having any idea of what the future holds.

We hear of 300 unaccompanied children living in the women’s enclave, but claiming to have family members in the UK and therefore having the legal right to travel. But there are delays while the families are checked by social workers, 'CRB' checked and the bureaucracy grinds on very slowly.
Meanwhile these children continue to suffer isolation, fear of abuse (in some cases apparently a realised fear) and who knows what legacy of mental health problems they will be left with.

A young doctor tells me that she has been given three days leave from her practice to work in the camp. She is in a truck with a red stethoscope around her neck, a table on which are some antiseptic creams and cough mixture, but no antibiotics: “I have no facilities here and so I really run a triage system assessing the men who come to the truck and sending them to the clinic run by Medécins sans Frontières or giving them reassurance that they will get better. We have a terrible epidemic of scabies at present.”

I am left with many mixed emotions, but finally sharing the hope of the migrants that this cannot continue forever. Something must and will be done. But what contribution can an individual make?  What contribution can I make?

(Scabies is caused by mites that get under the skin and cause intense itching and bleeding.  Infection can follow from the scratching.  It is particularly prevalent where people are living huddled together so the mites can pass directly from one body to another.)

All photos by Nick Maurice - click on photos to enlarge them.

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For the record: three documents concerning Wiltshire Council's consultation on the future of bus subsidies in the county

More than 11,000 people and businesses made their views known during Wiltshire  Council's consultation - which closed on April 4 - on the future of council subsidies for bus services in the county.

This review is part of Wiltshire Council's plans to save millions of pounds over the next three years.  No savings on bus subsidies will be made during this financial year.   

We publish below three documents that will be important evidence for the review.

1.  A letter from Devizes Passengers and Devizes Community Area Partnership with their response to the consultation:  

We attach our response on behalf of the Devizes area as well as that from Bus Users UK for your interest.  Below is a summary of our main concerns and conclusions. The end of the consultation is only the beginning of another exciting chapter.  As one door closes another opens so we also share our thoughts about the next stage for the Public Transport Review.
 
1.    The high response rate (at least 10,000) has shown that buses really matter to people across all of Wiltshire.  This has been a highly valuable awareness raising exercise for which we congratulate the Council. 

2.    We would like the Council to go further and lobby central Government about addressing the impact that current funding is likely to have on its bus services.

3.    Cutting bus services will particularly affect the young, the elderly, those without private transport and those with mobility problems.  The bus network boosts the local economy and helps keep cars off the road.  Buses give people independence to get about and help people lead socially active lives.  We have listed in paragraph 7 of our submission some examples of the negative effects of the loss of bus services.

4.    Wiltshire’s survey questions suggest that evening and Sunday services might be a luxury or not relevant to bus users. This is to misunderstand their current function and the future of our travel patterns.  Bus Users UK give a good example of longer term thinking in their response to Wiltshire Council: “Should the plans to amend Sunday trading laws go forward, this will result in extended opening hours but staff will not be able to access their places of employment if further cuts are made to bus services.”

5.    We appreciate the Council’s financial difficulties but we are not convinced by their calculations for savings. Reducing frequencies will have knock-on effects on ridership, and so is unlikely to achieve best value for slender public resources and will lead to a culture of bus decline.

6.    The approach we advocate is one of growth based on sound analysis of ridership and development.  Simplifying bus routes, highly visible marketing, improving the quality of information at bus stops, and if necessary extending the bus services into the evening or increasing their frequency should lead to better value.  The example we gave was of the Trans Wilts rail service project which has recently demonstrated the positive effects of investing in increasing frequencies (see paragraph 9 of our submission).  

7.    We believe there are opportunities to improve the efficiency of the bus network such as the somewhat chaotic 77/85/87 services west of Devizes (see paragraph  21).  It makes no sense for subsidies to be spent on services which perform no useful purpose, and therefore drive around empty. On the other hand the network gaps between Devizes and Marlborough and Stonehenge Visitor Centre strike us as vital tourist opportunities ready to be pursued.  

8.    Despite its bleak funding future, Wiltshire has worked hard with the communities of Devizes and Pewsey and invested in new Connect2Wiltshire semi-flexible routes for the Pewsey Vale, which combine direct routing to the railway station with deviations to villages.  This is a valuable pilot from which Wiltshire Council stands to gain unique experience that can be deployed in other areas of sparse travel demand including suburban areas.  This pilot should be given enough time and continued resource to mature and learn from.

9.    Wiltshire’s planning policies for new housing are predicated on developing and promoting sustainable transport. This is incompatible with removing bus services or reducing the network.

10.    Wiltshire’s bus network policy should be one that leads to better use of its public transport investment and that makes it easier for people to travel without a car.

11.    We set out our aims for the next stage of the review in Section 37.
Devizes Passengers & Devizes Community Area Partnership (transport interests)
Affiliated to:  Bus Users UK/Campaign for Better Transport/Sustainable Devizes

The full Devizes response can be read here.

2.  A letter to Wiltshire Councillor Philip Whitehead and Phil Grocock of Wiltshire Council from Dr Sam Page of Transition Marlborough:  

We are writing to confirm that we fully support the Devizes Passengers' call for an expansion to our bus services and our town council's resolution not to support any reduction in subsidised bus services, on the grounds that they would cause serious economic and social damage to our town.

There is need for a regular bus service between Marlborough and Devizes as well as bus services that are fully integrated with the rail network, including at commuting times, in accordance with LTP 3/4.

Furthermore, any cuts to our bus services would contravene United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11:
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Target 11.2 By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

The UK signed up to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015.

Please note the following resolution:

The Town Council’s resolution on the WC consultation was:
 
582/15 WILTSHIRE COUNCIL CONSULTATION – REVIEW OF SUBSIDISED BUS SERVICES Members considered a corporate response to the county-wide consultation. Main concerns were that:
·       All listed bus services were important
·       Any withdrawal of funding for buses would have a knock on effect on the town’s air quality as more cars took         to the road
·       The impact on those using the services to commute to work
·       The importance of links to rail services
·       The importance of retaining links to other towns (in particular, Swindon and Salisbury)
·       The impact on the elderly who used the bus services to travel around the town
·       The impact on those using the service to travel to hospital (GWH, RUH and Savernake)
·       The social impact of reducing costs was higher than the savings to be made.
 
It was noted that the feedback would be contrary to Option 6 of the consultation review document – Withdraw all funding for all council subsided services.
 
RESOLVED: by 11 votes for with 1 abstention that Marlborough Town Council does not support any reduction in subsidised bus services as they would cause serious economic and social disadvantage to the town.
Yours sincerely
Dr Sam L J Page (Transition Marlborough)


3.  A reply to Dr Page from Councillor Philip Whitehead:  

Dear Dr Page

Thank  you for your email, it will be considered with the rest of the responses.
 
With regard to your comment:
 
"Furthermore, any cuts to our bus services would contravene United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11:
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
 
Target 11.2 By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

The UK signed up to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015."
 
I think that this point should be sent to the UK government as such a goal is only achievable if the correct funding is available for local government and the UK signed up for it as opposed to the local council.
 
Regards Philip
 
Philip Whitehead
Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport
Councillor for Urchfont and The Cannings

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The partnership that's giving a boost to tourism in the Vale of Pewsey

The history of the Vale of Pewsey remains a largely untold story as so much of it still lies buried beneath the rich farmlands.  But there is also a fine collection of living remains and newer enterprises to attract visitors - so long as they know about them.

With the new tourist season beginning, the Pewsey Vale Tourism Partnership (PVTP) is starting its second year promoting tourism in the Vale.  It is a not-for-profit organisation initiated by the very proactive Pewsey Community Area Partnership (PCAP) - which was mainly responsible for getting new bus routes around the Vale and between Pewsey and Devizes.

Apart from its amazing landscape, the Pewsey Vale contains such living remains as Crofton's internationally famous Beam Engines, the Wilton Windmill, the Pewsey Heritage centre and, of course, a key stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal with its wildlife, bridges, tunnel, towpaths - and history.

The Partnership's aim is to publicise not only these, but other places for tourists to visit, walks they can take, where they can stay, where they can eat and drink, and where they can shop.

The main achievement of its first year has been the Tourism Partnership's website - built with funding from the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  This includes blogs about special occasions such as Mothers' Day and tackling essential tourist questions: 'Can you play Pooh Sticks on the canal'?

Their other main claim to fame in their first year was joining with Sam Bertram from LocalUncovered to organise the Pewsey Vale's Small Business Saturday last December - this aims to become Pewsey's annual small business answer to 'Black Friday's' shopping splurge.

A page from the PVTP websiteA page from the PVTP websiteHaving checked to make sure there was an appetite for a tourism partnership, the volunteers of the PVTP have been busy signing up members - businesses and organisations based in and around the Vale.  These are not just the tourist attractions themselves, but businesses that can benefit from visitors like B&Bs and cafés. They have 30 businesses signed up and want to reach 50 by the end of the year.

The PVTP's coordinator, Susie Brew, has an even more ambitious target in mind: "We've identified more than 200 businesses in Pewsey Vale that could benefit from a boost to the visitor economy."

Each member pays £40 a year and gets, among other benefits, free delivery of leaflets about local tourist attractions, enhanced promotion of their business on the Partnership's website, blogs and social media, and business newsletters.  The latest newsletter has drawn members' attention to GWR's offer of free publicity for tourist attractions.

There is also a Pewsey Vale page on the popular VisitWiltshire website - for which the PVTP pays.  And they have had help and advice from VisitWiltshire staff.

The Trail map [Click to enlarge]The Trail map [Click to enlarge]The Tourism Partnership has worked with Crofton, Wilton Windmill and the Pewsey Heritage Centre to create The Vale Trail - a walk that connects three of the most interesting social and industrial heritage sites - and along the way finds time for Jack Spratt's Clock, Bamberg Man and the Bruce Tunnel. The leaflet detailing the Trail has an intriguing illustrative map drawn by East Grafton artist June Pearson MBE.

Next on the PVTP agenda is developing more up-to-date information about local walks - including an App.  Before they can get that underway they will need to secure some new funding.

And what of all that history still buried under the vale?  The excavations last summer by Dr Jim Leary and his Reading University team at the Marden Henge (built in 2,400 BC and now reduced to a slight ridge across a field) became a tourist attraction in their own right.  And after they discovered the Early Bronze Age burial of an adolescent at the nearby Wilsford Henge, Dr Leary is determined to continue unearthing the Vale's ancient remains.

If anyone doubted the occupation of the Vale through history, the find of a beautifully preserved Saxon gold coin - now in the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes - should reassure them and give a boost to this year's tourist numbers.  You never know what historic left overs are lying around this area.  Visitors to the Vale take note.

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MPs hear there is no quick release from the hell that is HGVs-plus-sat-nav - but Mrs Perry finds a possible exit route

Westminster Hall debates can be rather like the letters page of our surviving local newspapers - only it's the turn of MPs to put their own and their constituents' grumps, grouses and ghastly experiences to a government minister.

They proceed with almost embarrassing politeness: "It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship...I congratulate [John Brown] on securing this debate.  He made an excellent speech...." - and so on.  They can also be the occasion for some simply terrible jokes.

These debates do however shed light on some of the quirkier corners of modern living that seldom feature in the national media - whether it is a badly maintained railway station, an unfair ticket price or - more pertinently for Marlborough - sat-navs and the traffic hell they can cause.

Just before Parliament rose for its Easter break, Craig Mackinlay (Conservative, South Thanet) won a Westminster Hall debate (March 22):  "I beg to move that this House has considered GPS satellite navigation and heavy goods vehicles."

If you think Marlborough is the only place on earth to be troubled with juggernauts taken down unsuitably narrow streets clipping historic houses as they go -then do read this debate.

In Marlborough the damage caused by huge articulated trucks trying to find a short cut to avoid the three minute wait at the Barn Street roundabout has been well documented.   We wait to see whether the experimental 'No Entry' into Silverless Street from Herd Street will be effective.  

But we will still have drivers going south urged by their sat-navs to turn off the A346, race along the southern edge of the common and sweep down Kingsbury Street onto the A4/High Street.

We know that sat-navs have cost council tax payers hundreds of thousands of pounds for all the 'Unsuitable for HGVs' signs that now dot the countryside.  But Mr Mackinlay is a bit of a geek about sat-navs.  He not only knows all about the 'GPS concept', but about the Russian GLONASS system and the European Galileo system.

The main speaker in these debates has to make way for other MPs with their local stories.  So Andrew Bingham (Conservative, High Peak) tells about New Smithy in his constituency which has a low bridge.  Despite the local council's signs, 'wagons' (as he calls them), directed by sat-navs ignorant of road widths and bridge heights, get stuck under it - "...and the costs of having to keep repairing the bridge are ridiculous."

Mr Mackinlay continues - assuring members as he goes that "I would never call myself a luddite, but consulting a good old-fashioned road map..."  He thinks one solution lies in the standard of the 'base maps' that sat-nav systems use.  He says the market leader is one called, rather neatly, HERE.

However, the real solution is to get HGV drivers to use HGV-compliant sat-navs - that might be beyond the powers of any non-luddite. So he falls back on "...a benchmark standard for sat-nav manufacturers and software providers to which they should be encouraged to adhere."  Pretty long odds available on that.

Despite the fact that she is the Minister for Railways - and trains do not, thank goodness, need sat-navs - Claire Perry MP is called on to reply to the debate.  She mentions the near-miss train accident when a truck turned off the A4 towards Little Bedwyn and knocked a bridge parapet onto the line below.  She also likes old-fashioned maps.

She has some almost bad news: "The Government still believe that the private sector remains best placed to develop new products and services, and the market - sensibly regulated - should determine whether those succeed."  I am not quite sure how the occupants of Dormy House on the corner of Silverless Strteet and Kingsbury Street, fit in to that market.

Then she has good news: later this year the Ordnance Survey will launch a digital road map that includes road widths, traffic calming measures, and height and weight restrictions.  This she believes will be 'open data' and should, repeat should, get into sat-navs' software.

But that word 'believes' is worrying.  George Osborne is reported to have his eye on the Ordnance Survey for privatisation.  If that happens, the odds would be stacked heavily against this new map - paid for by tax payers - remaining as 'open data' for more than a few hours.

Mrs Perry's colleague, James Cartlidge (Conservative, South Suffolk), who had found "...that signs do not always work with HGVs...", asked whether the government had powers to intervene with the sat-nav companies.

Mrs Perry consulted her map and thought this might be "...one of those slightly concerning paths down which to go...".  Although she would look to see whether it could be done, she did fear "...a sort of slightly dystopian world of lots of checks and balances, with organisations set up to do in-cab checks, and that is entirely what we do not want to deliver."  

Perhaps a few days sitting in Dormy House would change things - just a bit.   And to return briefly to Marlborough's air quality issues, think how simple it would be to 'de-prime' the A346 if all you had to do was to tell the sat-nav makers to send HGV's down another route!

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How they worked together to get an Easter morning breakfast egg from here to there - safely

Ready to roll down that ramp...Ready to roll down that ramp...For the third year running schools of the Marlborough Area Education Partnership (MAEP) have come together to organise an egg competition with a difference.

MAEP is a co-operative grouping of nine of the areas primary and junior schools - and St John's.  Their heads meet and agree an action plan.  They have run an anti-bullying programme, a big art skills project, a trip to Westminster and  share some IT equipment.  

The pre-Easter egg session comes under MAEP's science and technology programme,  which also runs after school clubs in the summer.  It was organised by the headteacher of Burbage Primary, Nicola Coupe, with Debs Johnstone of St Mary's Infant School.  

The floor of St John's Theatre on the Hill was covered with all the traditional Blue Peter sticky stuff and egg boxes and sixteen teams of second and third year pupils from seven of the MAEP schools...but none of them brought one they had made earlier.

The teams were made up of pupils from Burbage, Ogbourne, St Katharine's, Oare and Chilton Foliat primary schools and St Mary's Infants and St Peter's Junior schools.  Each team - most of them with members from different schools - had a responsible adult with them and there were grown-ups watching over the sawing benches.

Their aim was simply to make a car, a boat and a cable-car-type gondola to transport an egg - without cracking it - down a ramp, across a very small lake and down the zip-wire.  Simply?  Not at all.  From designing their team shield, to drawing the initial plans, through to the testing runs, this was a far from simple morning's work.

Sensibly during the construction and testing phases rubber eggs were used to make sure they fitted snuggly into each vehicle.  The competition runs used real eggs...and at the end there were plenty left unused.  This says a great deal about the care the children went to ensure their eggs fitted in safely.

Crossing the lake was carefully timedCrossing the lake was carefully timed A team shieldA team shieldEgg with safety harness...Egg with safety harness...

Unsurprisingly, as the egg was central to the designs, many of the teams chose to use egg boxes as their basic material.  After all egg boxes are made to protect eggs - so it paid to make best use of the way someone else's design keeps eggs safe.

Last year they had eggs on wheels, on water and dropped by parachute - the parachutes were very successful and great fun.  This year the parachute materials  stayed in the cupboard and instead they had set up a zip-wire on the stage - down which the great majority of gondolas slid at some speed and, with enough protection for the eggs, without mishap.  

A very sea-worthy raft...A very sea-worthy raft...Nicola Coupe & the zip-wire [Click to enlarge]Nicola Coupe & the zip-wire [Click to enlarge]Sawing - with careSawing - with care

How we asked one young engineer did she find designing a gondola for the zip-wire: "Daunting", she said.  At the bottom of the wire we counted three cracked or seriously broken eggs.  But the challenge was greatly enjoyed - and the odd broken egg was given a good jeering.

Problem spotting and problem solving was the essence of the competition.  If your mast is too tall or your sail too heavy, your boat will almost certainly turn over - and spill its egg.  And if your wheels are held too tightly to the sides of the car or do not turn together, then car and egg may well come off the ramp - with disastrous results.

Points were given for design, technical expertise, ease of inserting the egg, tidiness and, of course, safety of the egg.  When the competition runs were over and all the points were added up, just half a point separated the winning team from the two teams taking joint second place.  But it really was not too much about winning - much more about constructing satisfying vehicles for those precious eggs.

You can't produce engineers without breaking eggsYou can't produce engineers without breaking eggs

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How Tim White's flocks of ewes and his careful breeding programme have been interrupted by rampaging dogs

Tim White with his data reader - and some of his ewesTim White with his data reader - and some of his ewesTim White was working up on the downs near Pewsey.  With him were his three collies, his data reader, his mobile hurdles and electronic weighing gear - and out there on the hill 126 of his flock of 1,000 ewes.

He lives near Frome and has sheep on land near Blandford, near Wincanton, near Pewsey - and in winter on Martinsell Hill where they help maintain the unique downland turf.   

At the beginning of January Marlborough News Online reported that his ewes on Martinsell had suffered serious attacks by dogs - not stray or nearly feral dogs, but pet dogs being taken for a walk and suddenly reverting to some earlier generation's behaviour.  We will come back to that aspect of the story later.

At the foot of this article are two photographs of injuries to ewes from what is sometimes called 'sheep worrying'.  They may be something you will not want to see - or want children to see.  But they do carry an important message.

Tim White describes himself as a 'fairly late entry' to farming.  He owns no land, has no farm with yard and barns, no collateral.  He rents his home and does not borrow money.  Is he really, we ask him, a shepherd?: "I'm not a shepherd - I'm a data nerd."

He relies on his meticulous collection of data to continual improve the genetic make up of his flock of Exlana sheep - where 'ex' means without and 'lana' means wool.  They are a composite breed based on fourteen breeds selected from around the world.

The handsetThe handsetAll Tim White's ewes have an electronic ear tag.  He just has to point his reader at the tag and in an instant it shows him when a ewe was born, whether they were a twin or have had twins, their growth progress, treatments - a full life history, which is invaluable to researchers and in genetic-based breeding.

His flock is part of a national evaluation programme and he and his colleagues have attracted research projects from many agricultural institutes.

Tim White is a member of the Sheep Improved Genetics Ltd consortium of farmers in the south-west of England who are refining their stock through careful breeding to obtain easier management, ewes able to lamb unaided in the open and which shed their wool naturally.  The ewes also grow winter weather resilient coats that enables them to cope with the cold and the wet.

A ewe - complete with tailA ewe - complete with tailThese Exlana sheep are also called 'hair sheep' and the close cropped wool or hair means they are freer of fly strike, worm and other parasitic attacks.  And as they do not carry around that wool-and-droppings mix seen on many sheep's back-ends which is dangerously attractive to blow-fly and other pests, they do not have to have their tails docked.

After careful genetic selection, some of his ewes are now able to destroy in their gut half of worm eggs they ingest from the grass.

But why breed the wool out of sheep?  Wool is no longer marketable.  Fleeces can sell for £1.50 - almost exactly what it costs to shear each sheep.

Tim did not like the idea of studying agriculture at Cirencester, so he took off on a fourteen year journey working on farms and ranches in New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Eastern Europe.  When he finished travelling, he worked for fifteen years as the livestock manager on what was then Britain's largest organic farm.  

An Exlana ewe beginning to lose her short woolAn Exlana ewe beginning to lose her short woolTim WhiteTim WhiteWhy did he then decide to breed sheep?: "There's a short turnover with sheep - lambs can be fertile after a year.  You get your money back in the first year - no profit, but money back. Cattle take three years to mature.  But they're much nicer than sheep - sheep are just numbers, with cows you can have fifty and know them by name!"

Tim White and his colleagues in SIG Ltd want to move on to breed for food efficiency.  There can be a 100 per cent variance between two sheep of the same flock in how efficiently they turn food into what makes them sell - meat.

When I met Tim White he was looking for funding to start a large scale breeding programme on food efficiency: "It might take us seven years to knock ten per cent of the feed bill."  But they do not want to go too quickly and fall into the poultry trap of breeding food efficient hens some of which cannot stand up.

Tim's careful breeding programme is sometimes interrupted.  He found some ewes in one of his one flocks had been impregnated by a straying ram - a puny, runt of a ram of no genetic value.  The ewes had to be aborted and start their pregnancy again with a selected ram. And then there are the very unwelcome interruptions by pet dogs...

Being able to leave your sheep to look after themselves is good - except when dog walkers lose control of their pets and Tim White's ewes get attacked.

The gate into Martinsell Hill - with a defaced warning noticeThe gate into Martinsell Hill - with a defaced warning noticeTim White's ewes on the west slope of Martinsell Hill [Click to enlarge]Tim White's ewes on the west slope of Martinsell Hill [Click to enlarge]Since 1 November 2015 he has lost seven of his breeding ewes to attacks by dogs and had to stitch and care for 20 more.  The owner of the first dog to attack on Martinsell Hill owned up and paid for the sheep.

After another attack Tim found the ewe, turned her over onto her back, lifted up a large flap of flesh and could see her heart beating.  He stitched her and taped up the wound and gave her antibiotics.  Kept safely at his home, she proved very resilient and is now carrying twins.

The incidents that do not end as well as that one, have cost him about £6,000 in the last five months. The vets fees, medical products, disposing of bodies and so on, all adds up.  There are other less obvious costs - after one series of attacks with the sheep being chased around a hillside, he found 75 per cent of that flock were barren.

Tim's message to dog owners is simple: "On farmland and pasture, keep your dogs on the lead - there may be sheep just over that hill."

...and another...and anotherAftermath of an attack by a pet dog...Aftermath of an attack by a pet dog...

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Bus crisis? Part Two: Will the current Wiltshire Council consultation on bus subsidised services allow communities a proper say?

The new timetables for the Connect2Wiltshire bus services were drawn up after a great deal of hard work by Pewsey and Devizes Community Area Partnerships (CAPs) in close liaison with Wiltshire Council's Passenger Transport Unit and the added expertise of an internationally known specialist on rural transport.

Alan James, the expert called in to help sort out these new timetables, told Marlborough News Online: "The new C2W timetable has been devised to trial a model for the more efficient provision of rural bus services, by seeking to understand and provide for a wider range of potential demand, rather than acting solely as a safety net for those without other means of vehicle transport." 

"The incorporation of rail connections at Pewsey Station is one example of how this can be done, but more generally a community-led process of timetable development has enabled a better understanding of user needs which have been incorporated as far as possible into the new timetable."

"If successful, it may help to boost the case for retaining rural bus services and stem the current rather depressing scenario of death by a thousand (service) cuts."

About half the bus services in Wiltshire are subsidised by the Council - to the tune of £5.1million per year.

The Council's current consultation on the county's subsidised bus services (which lasts until April 4 and can be found here) will be taking the Pewsey-Devizes Connect2Wiltshire consultations into account.  What is less certain is whether communities that may be affected by route closures can get together as Pewsey and Devizes did to fashion a sustainable service to meet their area's needs.

But the pre-consultation process has raised some very interesting points.  Several people asked why the bus companies used large vehicles when services often carried one or two passengers.  The Council responded: "Council contracts do not require an operator to use a larger vehicle than required to carry the maximum expected load."

"However, operators choose to use the same vehicle throughout the day as it would be more costly to have a smaller vehicle available for use in the middle of the day.  Fuel and direct operating costs are only a small proportion of overall costs, so the saving from using a small vehicle would be outweighed by costs of having a larger fleet."

From that and similar responses, it looks very much as though the Council's bid to save money will not result in any transformation of bus services to suit rural communities - smaller vehicles, more frequent services etc.  This may, of course, mean that the consultation results simply in cutting services.

Are there other ways to pay for bus services?  Dawn Wilson, Chair of the Pewsey CAP, told Marlborough News Online: "Wiltshire is very lucky - there are places around England with no rural transport."  But she does believe current policies do not help make rural services sustainable.

"In Wiltshire two fully paying passengers on each journey on each route would secure the services - and take away the need for a subsidy."  

But there is another way forward.  She thinks a card like the old person's rail card, allowing older passengers to pay two-thirds of the fare would be fairer than the free bus pass.   At the moment that is not possible as one contributor making a comment to the pre-consultation process discovered:

Comment: "Free bus passes for OAPs - introduce a small charge for each journey (50p) or for the bus pass (£10 or £20 per annum) or make it means tested.  Many users are well off and could afford to pay whereas some users need that pass."

Council response: "This is not allowed under Government legislation. The Project Board will, however, consider whether to lobby Government on this matter..."

One major nation-wide problem is that the government's Buses Bill which aims to revolutionise the way services are delivered and reduce the costs of delivery significantly, is still going through Parliament - while around the country cuts are being made and planned to bus routes.   There is a danger that we will end up with a magnificent new Buses Act but no buses, and with millions of bus pass holders but no services on which to use them.

Lack of reliable and cheap bus services can have serious knock-on effects especially in the area of health and wellbeing and its near neighbour - so to speak - rural isolation.

The last word goes to Alan James who has seen these kind of impacts in many countries and in many parts of the UK:

"There are some people from all sectors of the rural population who depend on buses to access work, training, leisure, health and shops: without buses it becomes increasingly impracticable for these people to live in rural areas, and the diversity and vitality of rural communities suffers accordingly."

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