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An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 62-64.

Victory at Offham!

What... you mean we won?

A strange thing happened to us in April - we set up camp to defend a piece of land and won. Winning rather surprised us, we'd been kind of looking forward to a nice summer in the sun!

Offham Valley lies near Lewes in the eastern portion of the South Downs. A small and beautiful valley, it consists of a mix of species rich downland, woodland and scrub. Largely untouched because of its steepness it is an oasis of life surrounded by a desert of ploughed fields. It is designated a SSSI, one of the highest 'protections' available in Britain.

The land 'owner', Farmer Harmer, has been paid £40 per hectare by the Ministry of Agriculture to leave the land alone. Getting £40 a year to do nothing might seem to you like a good scam; but Harmer reckoned he could do better. He submitted an application to plough up the land to plant fibre flax, for which he would get £591.16 a hectare. As if this wasn't bad enough, he would he being paid as a result of the Common Agricultural Policy to plant a crop of which there is already a glut. On such agriculturally marginal land the crop would have been low and he'd probably have ploughed it straight back into the ground. Of course, he wouldn't have minded, he would have already cashed the subsidy.

Brighton Friends of the Earth had organised a direct action rota and had been keeping an eye on Harmer. The first day he ploughed about a third of the valley. But he was stopped by a small group (including members of the local Labour Party!) who went 'tractor diving'. Harmer hadn't expected any resistance, even some of his beloved tractor's windows were broken.

Early the next morning seven of us from South Downs EF! appeared, and, with trees Harmer had handily cut down for us, barricaded the track entering the valley. FoE held a well attended press conference overlooking the destruction and suddenly the campaign was big news. (In the light of subsequent events, it is interesting to note that a leading Sussex conservationist stated that day that he thought there was 'zero chance' of saving what remained.)

That afternoon 'Adder Camp' was set up and the land officially squatted. The deadline for seeding the crop was approaching; despite the camp being staffed at night by only 3 - 4 people, we hoped that the eviction process would continue until after the deadline - given a farmer's relatively limited funds.

Some staff at national FoE became quite worried that the campaign would go beyond their control, maybe ruining their precious media image. Much to the annoyance of some local members, who were instrumental in the campaign and one of whom was living on the camp, Brighton FoE 'received orders' that it could not describe Offham as a FoE campaign. In the end this turned out for the better.

Our group has long had the policy of not labelling campaigns. Despite numerous TV interviews no-one ever mentioned they were from EF!, describing themselves instead as 'local people'. This gave the illusion that the camp was a spontaneous action taken by Lewes residents. As a result, large numbers of Lewes people did come up and get involved, who might have been alienated if the campaign had been labelled as FOE or EF! - or worse still, a camp of 'eco-warriors'. The fact that no-one on the hill looked much like the media stereotype of 'an ecowarrior' probably helped. In fact most of the interviews were done by two women who put across more of an image of second world war 'land girls' than crusties. By originally giving an illusion of local involvement, local involvement became more of a reality. Every day more and more local people came up.

Farmer Harmer was nowhere to be seen - he was, according to one copper, 'sitting pulling his hair out at the prospect of a Newbury on his farm'. The tractor had cross-ploughed lots of the downland, but a substantial amount had only had the turf turned over. We set about the long task of 'unploughing' - burying our hands in the earth and turning the turf. Working so closely with it, we noticed for the first time how species rich and intricate the downland flora really was. This was an amazing experience, foot by arduous foot we saw what had been desolation green over. As Barry Lopez puts it:

'I know of no restorative of heart, body, and soul more effective against hopelessness than the restoration of the Earth. Like childbirth, like the giving and receiving of gifts, like the passion and gesture of the various forms of human love, it is holy.' [1]

Meanwhile in the artificial world it was the run up to the election. Tony Blair came to Brighton and was asked if he was against the destruction of the Offham SSSI. He replied, (and I paraphrase), "I've always been against the destruction at Offham. I don't know what the fuck it is - but vote for me!". His statement was faxed to the local Tory MP's, the Environment Minister and his shadows. Suddenly politicians were falling over each other to be the most committed to 'defending Offham'. One local Tory MP, who helped draft the Criminal Justice Act - the legislation under which one activist was cautioned at Offham - pronounced, 'I support the Un-ploughers'.

In a last minute attempt to help out the beleaguered local Tories' re-election chances, and to further his own career, the Environment Minister put a Protection Order on Offham - one of only six in the last 5 years. This forbade Harmer from doing any more work. In a vain publicity stunt, Harmer even came up and turned some turf - until the cameras went away.

We had won. A 'Picnic and Turf Turning' event was held three days later on the Sunday, to celebrate the victory. It was an amazing sight. Lewes people of all ages wound their way through the barricades and up on to the down. It was a sunny day and children were everywhere. All day the turf was turned back. At one point around 250 people with spades, forks or just their hands were lined up across the hill - helping it heal. Everyone really felt it was their victory, and it was.

Taking on farmers is a lot easier than taking on road building. Though the land being defended was much smaller than a road site, the success at Offham has had a knock on effect. Once one farmer successfully scams something, others copy. Brighton FoE were expecting a whole' pile of applications by other farmers, ready to dig up downland. Yet, at the time of writing, no others have been submitted.

Even the local National Farmers Union branch was pressuring Harmer to back down. They were worried that "this might be the Twyford Down of Agriculture" - eg. the opening salvo on a 'new front'. Maybe it will be.

At the '96 EF! gathering there was much discussion about getting together a 'farmageddon' campaign. While campaigns against infrastructure growth like Manchester & Newbury are essential, they give the illusion that ecological destruction mainly happens in the realm of 'mega-developments'. In fact the way we grow our food is the main cause of devastation in this country.

'In 1940, the German Luftwaffe made an aerial survey of much of Britain, especially the east and the south. 'These magnificent photographs', wrote Oliver Rackham in 1986, 'record every tree, hedge, bush, pingo and pond in several counties'. They show that 'except for town expansion, almost every hedge, wood, heath, fen etc. on the Ordnance Survey map of 1870 is still there on the air photographs of 1940. The seventy eventful years between, and even World War two itself, were less destructive than any five years since'. The commonest cause of this post-war orgy of vandalism, Rackham concludes, 'has been destruction by modern agriculture; the second, destruction by modern forestry.'[2]

In fact, 'since 1945 the UK has lost 30% of its rough grazing land, 65% of song thrushes, 90% of meadows, 50% of lowland woodlands, heaths and fens and 140,000 miles of hedgerow.'[3]

Maybe a coming together of 'The Land is Ours' and anti-genetics campaigns could be the catalyst for this 'new front'.

We spent nine gorgeous days at Offham. We saw adders two or three times a day, and once even a deer! Living there and defending the land re-inspired us. If you ever walk the South Downs Way (which crosses Offham), and you come across a beautifully vibrant valley just north of Lewes, kiss the earth and shout to the four winds - "Direct Action Works!".

What You can do to Help Offham

The Conservation Order is a temporary reprieve. It is only in force until October. Harmer still hasn't pledged not to plough the valley again. Write to him at: Farmer Harmer, Offham, nr. Lewes, East Sussex, and warn him that if he tries again you'll be there to stop him. Don't use your real name.

References

1. Taken from the brilliant book 'Helping Nature Heal: An Introduction to Environmental Restoration', Berkeley, 1991. See also 'Tree Spirit and Earth Repair', Do or Die 5.

2. Oliver Rackham quoted in 'Low Impact Development: Planning & People in a Sustainable Countryside', Simon Fairlie, 1996, p13.

3. Council for the Protection of Rural England.


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