Novel crop cycles to reap good will

Diane Spencer

"Most urban people consider farmers to be hooligans destroying the countryside. We're to blame as we have kept them off our land. In my own small way I'm trying to correct some misconceptions," said Tom Hobbs, who owns a "smashing bit of Sussex".

With his partner, Geoff Hill, a retired bank manager, he has just opened his 230-acre farm, Deers Leap Park, to visitors. He has created all-weather cycle tracks and footpaths in an area of outstanding natural beauty near East Grinstead.

Mr Hobbs wants "to get the message across that we are not despoiling what we've got, but enhancing it". Both he and Mr Hill are governors of local schools which have given the project "tremendous support" and he is keen to encourage schools to use the park to teach children how farms operate.

"We tell them why we spray crops, show them where their Sunday roast comes from, and how we manage woodland," he said, pointing to one copse where the undergrowth had been cleared of storm-damaged trees. "Look at that undergrowth. There'll be a carpet of bluebells next spring." But he intends to leave another half acre with its dead wood to show the contrast: no flowers, no ferns, no wildlife.

Although he does use insecticides and fertilisers, he leaves the hedgerows and a generous margin of land to the local flora and fauna - about 150 varieties of grass and wildflowers, numerous species of birds and animals, including deer.

By the end of September there will be five miles of cycle track covered with sandy gravel and woodchip recycled from the farm's dead trees. For more advanced riders, "trial" sections await, hidden in woodland and the 18th-century clay pits which dot the landscape.

Visitors don't have to hurtle round on bikes, they can stroll around the paths and indulge in "pond-dipping", watch the farm staff at work or just take a picnic. Demonstrations of woodland crafts are planned.

Children will be encouraged to sponsor a tree in the 10-acre field which the farm intends to plant with deciduous woodland. The money will go to an environmental charity and Mr Hobbs hopes that their investment will get them involved in environmental education. Each sponsored tree will be mapped so the child can "come and see how much it's grown".

Deers Leap is working hard at child safety. The park is patrolled by eight rangers and all staff have first-aid training. Each rider must wear a helmet and is issued with a whistle - "so when you fall off and break something we can come and collect you".

Deers Leap Park, Saint Hill Green, East Grinstead, West Sussex RH19 4NG, Tel. 01342 325858

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