Once a year Valentine’s Day comes around. Apart from being the patron saint of beekeepers and plague, Valentine also has responsibility for romantic love. Any sensible partner knows that maintaining a good relationship takes more than sending a card once a year. And maybe flowers or chocolates on a birthday. Or at various festivals. As climate change keeps reminding us, we should fix the roof when the sun shines, and now that it is more the time of year for cloud and rain, it’s also time to complete hedging and ditching before it becomes illegal from March 1st until August 31st.
We try to protect habitat for nesting birds by leaving hedges to redevelop each spring, to welcome nesting birds until the seasons turn again in September. If we also wait until too late to tend the ditches, not only do we risk drowning small mammals which feed predatory birds and animals, but we expose arable crops to flooding, reducing the harvest of feedstuffs for both animals and ourselves.
It can be tempting, when times are hard, to try to save pennies – always in short supply when harvests are sparse – by postponing maintenance. But being pennywise is nearly always pound-foolish. John Ruskin was a Londoner who lived his life in an attempt to become a countryman. He always reckoned if you tried to do things on the cheap, you’d end up spending more than you thought you’d saved. It’s been described as “The Common Law of Business Balance”. It was one of his better observations. He died in 1900 at Coniston in the Lake District, where his country house, Brantwood, is now open to the public. He was an influence on the Arts and Crafts movement, and particularly on William Morris and Augustus Pugin, whose work, drawing on images of nature, continues to brighten up many city interiors. It’s fair to say that Ruskin and his pals did nothing ‘on the cheap’, and their designs continue to represent wealth and luxury well over a century later. In the case of Pugin it is the luxury that surrounds members of Parliament and Lords, although the Palace of Westminster is in need of restoration. Failure to maintain the building means that it is estimated it will take around eighty years and twenty-two billion pounds to complete. If a continual program of maintenance had been carried out, it would have avoided the costs of neglect.
In years gone by hedges would be ‘laid’ at fifty year intervals, then trimmed annually to prevent the hedge from growing too tall, too wide, and becoming an ineffective barrier to keep livestock from escaping. It’s a highly skilled practice, and being labour intensive, is rarely carried out because it’s more expensive than machine cutting and the addition of fencing to keep livestock safely confined. For ‘purists’, machine cutting simply avoids neglect cheaply but with an unsightly and untidy appearance. Neglected, however, a hedge will soon cost far more to restore than it would have cost to maintain.
Skipping maintenance eventually runs things down until they no longer function as they were intended. Neglect is uneconomic. Ditches and drains must be maintained, otherwise, when the ‘rainy day’ comes along, flooding will cost so much more to resolve than it would have to prevent.
If rural managers need any justification for spending estate owners’ and stakeholders’ funds on maintenance, they need only to point out the cost of neglect on national infrastructure; not just failure to keep roads and railways fit for purpose, but also the result of lack of investment for at least a dozen years in the NHS. Good countrymen know: prevention is better than the cure.
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