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Students return to the wild

Mounting concern for the countryside has led to a resurgence in demand for courses in traditional rural skills, which had gone into sharp decline by the end of the 1980s.

Some colleges have seen a six-fold increase in demand for courses leading to qualifications in highly specialised studies such as dry stone walling, coppicing and hedge-laying. Demand has revived the flagging fortunes of many agricultural colleges, seeking to widen their training base as the farming industry declines.

Government-backed schemes to persuade landowners to farm their land in an environmentally-friendly way have created a need for traditionally-skilled labour.

Raised awareness in schools of the need to protect the environment has further fuelled demand as more attention is being given to environmental education, according to college managers. Four colleges have started courses in farriery to help ease the shortage of horseshoe makers and fitters.

Stuart Davidson of Myerscough College in Lancashire, which started a Business and Technology Education Council diploma course in farriery last year, said amateurs were also contributing to the revival of interest in traditional skills. "We are running a lot of weekend and short courses to cater for a new market of students," he says.

A new type of course in equine science has started at Cornwall College. It combines stable management with the traditional sciences for students working as veterinary assistants.

Warwickshire College, the largest equine college in the country, is also running a BTEC in farriery as well as courses in side-saddle riding and breaking and training new horses.

"The demand here has always been reasonable but it is increasing," says Mike Saville, director of the college. "We are concentrating on supplying courses where there is a need and at the moment, it is in some of the traditional rural skills." Other very popular courses which have reappeared at the college include sheepdog handling, cane-smithing and hedge-laying.

But there are still concerns about mainstream areas of farming such as pig husbandry which are threatened by the encroachment of factory farming.

Oatridge College near Edinburgh, Scotland is soon to open a new pig production unit. "We are not prepared to accept that traditional courses will disappear,"says college manager Peter Skett. "There is still a big requirement for us to get highly-skilled people in the industry."

Terry Howard, head of development at the industry's training organisation, ATB Landbase, says improving the features of the landscape has created a need for people capable of building dry-stone walls and laying hedges. "Farmers are being offered payment to make their land more attractive which brings with it a skills need and a need to get people doing the work," he adds ATB Landbase says the demand for courses in traditional skills, taken increasingly by conservation groups such as the National Trust, will rise as a result of the Government's rural White Paper.

"This will give more landowners incentives to look after their land and give more opportunities to get involved with many old skills.

"It is definitely on an upward plane," Mr Howard adds.

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