Earlier fears about Foot and Mouth precautions are confirmed as many fields are closed to circle researchers - and worse. KAREN DOUGLAS reportsÖ
i) THE CURRENT SITUATION
It is growing more and more apparent that this crop circle season IS being affected by the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in the UK. Whilst footpaths and bridleways continue to re-open across the country, we are being urged to remain vigilant and sensible in our interaction with the countryside. So far, in the Wiltshire area, no farmer has given permission for circle researchers to enter their fields. The formation at Berwick Bassett occurred on a farm which had been infected with the disease and was off-limits to all; in fact most of North Wiltshire (ie. North of Avebury) is still restricted and footpaths remain closed where they run close to farm buildings or livestock. There are, of course, exceptions, but as a general rule not much is open in this area of Wiltshire. It is said that the F&M virus can remain on the land for up to six months after infection.
Despite having an early formation in East Field at Alton Barnes, the farmers (the Carsons) have deemed the field off-limits. This is due to the fact that their animals are put to pasture on the hills adjoining the field and they are still wary of the possible spread of the disease by people entering the field. Knapp Hill and Adamís Grave also remain cordoned off for the same reason Ė livestock are regularly grazed on this land.
Much has been said lately about Foot and Mouth, much of it quite cynically, about how unfriendly farmers are using it as an excuse to keep researchers from the fields. It has to be said that farmers donít really need an excuse to deny entry to their fields; anyone who goes into a farmerís field without permission is trespassing. Of course, in previous years many have done this, with all sorts of claimed justifications. However, with Foot and Mouth now present we must be careful not to pour gasoline onto the fire, and some modification of our thinking and behaviour seems to be in order. From experience I can understand how it might be difficult to feel compassion toward an unfriendly or irate farmer, but it does seem to be the order of the day. We have much to lose if the farmers should decide, because of our unthinking actions, that they should never co-operate with us again. We could be storing up trouble for next year if we are careless this season
Things may change the later into July we get. There are national plans to open more of the countryside, coinciding with the end of school term (ie. the main tourist season) and the height of the summer heat (F&M apparently does not last long in very hot weather). It may be that we have to wait until then before we see any relaxation of access from farmers and this may only be in locations where the fields in question are not situated away from grazing animals.
Of course, it may be that the circles will remain off-limits for the whole of this summer, which would be a great shame. My feeling is that if we want the chance of any kind of access this year we have to show we can behave responsibly and with restraint in the face of the plight of the farmers and their animals. Only by doing this and encouraging others to do the same will we been seen by the farming community to be serious and trustworthy researchers. All those who have any influence in this community should use it to promote this idea. It is still possible to fly the formations and record the events as they happen. If, later on in the season, permission is given to enter some of the patterns, then it will have to do for this summer, but to behave as though this disease does not exist, or with cynicism toward the farming community only makes us look uncaring and irresponsible.
Polly Carson (farmer of East Field, Alton Barnes) has recently issued a letter in which she expresses her feelings towards anyone who deliberately may hoax a formation on her land. Her plea is that those who claim they know who the perpetrators are should warn these alleged hoaxers off because of the dangers posed by F&M. I have great respect for Polly Carson (as do many others). She has been a dedicated advocate of this phenomenon and a gracious host when it comes to giving access to her farm and I think her appeal for caution regarding F&M should be heeded well. (However, I must gently and respectfully say that her comments towards those that claim they know who hoax formations may give this line of thinking more publicity than it should be given.)
I heard the sad news that a herd of animals in Wroughton (near Barbury Castle) had to be slaughtered last week. This, however, does not mean that there is F&M in Wiltshire as you might expect. The animals are being culled because they are SUSPECTED to have contracted the disease (the outbreak is not confirmed). I think this illustrates well the fear and nightmarish scenario that this disease has wreaked over this country and says everything about why we must take this disease seriously and conduct our research responsibly.
This does NOT mean that we should forsake our beloved Wiltshire this year. It is clear that the phenomenon has something to say this year by its appearance in our fields and this Wiltshire community that has been so gracious to us over so many years now needs our support in its time of real need.
ii) A CAUTIONARY TALE
This Saturday (30th June 2001), Steve Alexander and I drove to All Cannings, near Alton Barnes, to look at a new formation there. We parked by the side of the field hoping to get a glance of what the new circle looked like. We had been there for a few minutes when the farmer arrived on the scene in his tractor with his grass cutter attached. He drove straight into the field and proceeded to cut out the centre of the formation with his great metal machine. It was a heart-breaking sight. He then left the field. Much of the formation remained unblemished, and for sure reconstructions and diagrams will ensue, but to see one of these lovely creations with its heart gouged out was a truly distressing experience. I truly hope this will not set a precedent for this summer and that this was an action of flash anger by this one farmer, but yet again this event says so much about the situation we face.
Worries over Foot and Mouth may have stimulated this particular destruction. However, other factors may also have played a role. Formations have been cut out in irritation before now and widely-perceived attitudes spread by overtly sceptical researchers may be responsible. If farmers are repeatedly told that the vast majority of these formations are man-made frivolities, common sense dictates that we will continue to see more of these un-ceremonial mutilations of this phenomenon we all care about. Many do see the internet reports (farmers have youngsters who can use the net if they themselves canít). If they already feel angered by the inconvenience the formations cause then reading that a large percentage are considered hoaxed will only fan the flames.
I think nothing much happens by coincidence. In this subject we have all become aware that if we pay attention to these synchronicities they often carry important information or lessons for us. I think we were meant to witness this event, no matter how distressing, and that it was a synchronous portent of where we might be heading if we donít realise the responsibility we carry. This formation could have been the real thing, an important formation, and it now lies disfigured, perhaps because of the negativity of certain sections of the research community and a lack of ability to fully think things through. If I ever had any doubts, this event has taught me that if some of us continue on this negative bent we will end up having the baby thrown out with the bath water.
More than ever we need to think about the big picture. Private thoughts and theories are fine, of course, but they have to be checked with the need to remain focused on the larger picture and that sometimes means behaving with restraint and by keeping your options truly open. As for you increasingly sceptical alleged croppies, share your opinions, but donít do it with cynicism and vitriolic ďI told you soísĒ and patronising pats on the back which say ďIím so sorry for bursting your bubbleĒ. If we set our stalls out right now, we risk burning bridges that can never be rebuilt and back ourselves into a corner from which there is no return. Can any of us really, truly say that what we believe about this phenomenon is an accurate reflection of the truth, because if we canít, and I suspect we canít, then we have to, in all integrity, proceed with open hearts and minds. But most of all, we must at all costs, resist the danger to bludgeon our way to the truth.