This however is now only one side of the story, I fear we are entering troubled and worrying times. The craft was dying out and the DSWA in Wales and Nationally has done much to stem this. The situation has also been greatly helped by the grants available since the mid 1980s and the 'green climate'. This is now changing and it can only be for the worse.
Recent survey work in England suggests that 50% of walls are showing signs of dereliction or are already derelict, with only 4% of walls in excellent condition and with less than 13% of walls being stock-proof. Observation suggests that there is little reason to think these figures vary significantly in Wales. More people are needed but the extent of the work required and its cost means grants are essential if the network of walls across our landscape is not to ultimately disappear.
Government re-organisation of the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) has led to the cutting back of the funds the CCW makes available to other bodies. Gwynedd and Clwyd County Council's Landscape and Conservation Grant schemes were essentially CCW funded. These were the only significant grants for walling available outside of the agricultural sector. Their future is now in doubt -no money, no grants, fewer walls repaired. The CCW also directly grant aided walling restoration work for the National Trust on walls seen as landscape features (barnyards, sheep pens etc.) or as part of stock-proofing ecologically interesting areas. Now this money has gone, jeopardising much of the Trust's ongoing programme of restoration.
The CCW funded, and Snowdonia National Park Authority (SNPA) administered "Tir Cymen" scheme in Merionydd is secure for the immediate future. An innovative, and expensive scheme (see "Stonechat. March l994 its long term future must be in doubt, and as a pilot scheme it is now hard to imagine its being extended to other areas.
Theoretically the funds cut from CCW will go to the new unitary authorities who will be responsible for grant aiding countryside work if they wish. Already hit by government cut backs these authorities will now have to consider such grant aiding alongside education and health care, what chance do we stand? Cynic that I am I cannot help thinking this is a clever scheme whereby the government is seen to be giving these authorities more money, making any shortcomings seem to be more the fault of the local authorities. Walling cannot compete with health and education, but then should it need to?
Then there was the Welsh Office Agricultural Department (WOAD . the Welsh arm of MAFF) Farming and Conservation Grant Scheme. This was perhaps the most important scheme for kick-starting revival of the craft in the mid 1980s This scheme grant aided walls in Less Favoured Areas (much of North Wales) by 50% of cost with reduced levels of grant in other areas, the National Park added a top up of 30% to this within the Park. Suddenly large scale walling work on farms became comparable in cost to fencing.
The scheme began to encounter problems in 1993. Payments were taking an inordinate time to come from WOAD, SNPA didn't pay until after WOAD and then not straight away. Then came AICS (sorry I don't know what the acronym stands for) an EEC inspired idea whereby farmers had to compile maps and fill in forms first about their herds of cattle and later their flocks of sheep. WOAD was swamped by paperwork, and the processing of grants took even more of a back seat. Payment within 6 months became virtually un-known and periods of 9 months to a year not un-heard of. Those in the National Park then had to wait for their top-ups. Cynicism or paranoia but at the time I could not help thinking that someone somewhere was being very clever in appearing to be green' whilst in effect making it virtually impossible for anyone to get a grant because neither the farmer nor the contractor could afford to wait so long for their money.
Then in February 1994 the MAFF'WOAD grant was cut to 30% in the LFAs and 15% in other areas. 15% is virtually useless in encouraging work - a lot minus 15% is still a lot, 30% is hardly any better. At least within the National Park the SNPA increased their top-up to 50%, so farmers could still get 80%. Despite assurances from WOAD the payment system was hardly improving and there seemed to be an element of once bitten twice shy amongst farmers, and it was my experience that they were no longer as keen to commit themselves to large scale walling projects.
Now comes the bombshell, on 19th. February 1996 the FCGS will end, full stop, no more payments even on ongoing projects unless they are part of a 5 year Plan (a slight variation on the FCGS, too detailed to go into here and not as significant in walling terms) and no more 5 year plans once the current agreements have been completed. This has essentially been sprung on people out of the blue without any replacement scheme ready to be put in place. A working group in England is reportedly looking at the issue, but no-one knows if and when any new scheme will be implemented, and it certainly isn't likely to be on or before 19th February. Doesn't Government planning and foresight give you confidence! Farmers are clamouring for wallers, wallers (or at least this one) having restructured due to falls in work are running around like headless chickens trying to keep up with the work and panicking as to what they are going to be doing come 19th February.
How can a major grant scheme which has become an integral part of the agricultural industry and one of the key aspects in the maintenance of our Landscape - covering aspects such as hedgelaying as well, be dropped virtually overnight, with little warning, without apparently telling or consulting with those that will be directly affected, without concrete proposals (or even proposals of any sort) for a replacement scheme. How can we promote good walling when a constantly changing grant system leads to uncertainty and short term employment.
Grant systems are undoubtedly a major influence on whether or not walls are repaired, but increasingly I find myself questioning their efficacy and value. Quality comes with experience, wallers need time to develop their skills. Constantly changing systems and a lack of continuity must surely work against the promotion of quality and good craftsmanship. People leave the craft before their skills are fully developed, new wallers might enter the system as it changes but the end result must be to effectively place a cap on quality. I for one am at the end of my tether. How long can anyone put up with the constant chopping and changing, the need to be forever restructuring their business and the lack of any security whatsoever. I know I am not alone in thinking this. I despair when I think of all the potential Master Craftsmen I have worked with, who's skills I've invested time and effort in helping develop, who have now more or less been lost to the craft.
Cynic, paranoiac - or realist? If dry stone walling is dying then the Government are the executioners and they are making it swift, if not painless. The only light at the end of the tunnel is John Redwood's leaving the Welsh Office. Perhaps - and it's a faint hope - the CCW will be allowed to get back to, and on with, its job. As for the future of agricultural walls I have a deep sense of foreboding.