Stressed Shropshire farmer in gas drilling contract warning

The farmer caught up in a controversial plan to drill for gas in north Shropshire has warned other landowners not to sign licence agreements.

Paul Hickson of Brooklands Farm
Paul Hickson of Brooklands Farm

Paul Hickson says he does not want other farmers to go through the three years of stress and worry he has endured after he agreed to give an energy company three years in which to look for gas under his field.

Now the licence has expired the farmer says he will not be renewing it. And he has spoken out to urge others not to get involved in any unconventional gas drilling.

"I didn't realise just what it might involve, what I was getting into," he said.

Environmental protector Yellowbelly at Dudleston camp

The "protectors" who have spent the past year living in a pallet-constructed fort on the site where the drill pad would have been in Dudleston are now preparing to dismantle their home and move on.

Dudleston Castle, as it was christened, was built in August 2014 and over the months has grown to include separate living quarters complete with log burning stoves, a fully stocked camp kitchen and even a solar shower.

Those living inside say that while they now feel the threat has been lifted, they will not be able to move out overnight.

The spokesman for the group, who says they are environmental protectors not protesters, is known only by the name of Yellowbelly.

"We would like 28 days to dismantle the camp, allow the wildlife that has made its home with us to move out and to put the site back to exactly how it was when we arrived here," he said. "We want to leave properly. The farmer has been very understanding and so we want to ensure we leave the site as we found it. All we want to leave are our footprints."

He said this was a victory against the big energy companies.

But Yellowbelly stressed his own personal fight would continue.

"I have been based in Shropshire for much of the time but I have been to other camps such as the one at Borras over the Welsh border and at Faslane in Scotland to help our friends," he said.

"There will always be environmental threats that need addressing and areas that need protecting.

"This is a beautiful corner of Shropshire and we are so pleased that it will not be spoiled.

"The help we have had from the local community and from further afield has been fantastic. People have donated everything, from carpets and tarpaulins and even furniture to food and medicines so that the camp could function."

"I don't want anyone else going through the same stress, hurt and worry that myself and my family have had."

Dart Energy which took over the contract from the original energy company wanted to put a temporary drill on a field on the farm to look for coal-bed methane.

Shropshire Council refused planning permission, which Dart appealed against and the application is now subject to an appeal.

It was revealed yesterday that Dart's agreement with Mr Hickson had expired, making it highly unlikely drilling would ever take place on the land. The company was not available to comment.

Mr Hickson said the controversial plans caused him ill health, cost him friendships and even threatened the future of his business.

The 54-year-old says he feels that a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders now the three-year licence for test drilling on his land has come to an end.

In July 2012 Mr Hickson signed a form giving the energy company the licence to site an exploratory drill pad in a field at the family's Brooklands Farm.

Since then he says he and his family have gone through three years of the most unimaginable stress and worry which has seen him lose friends, suffer ill health and face losing his business.

Now those three years are at an end he is urging other farmers not to sign similar licences.

Mr Hickson said he signed the licence agreement because of advice from his late father – a well respected and passionate farmer who when he passed away was remembered as "a son of the soil".

"He always said that, while it was our land and we should love it and protect it, whatever was underneath it belonged to the country," Mr Hickson said.

"But when I signed it there was never any mention of the damage that drilling could do to the land."

Mr Hickson said of all those who would have been affected by drilling for coal-bed methane he and his family would have lost the most.

"There have been rumours that if this had gone ahead it would have made me a multi-millionaire," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth.

"All I would have received was up to £4,000 compensation simply to put the land back to what it was, nothing else.

"This is an organic farm and with the drilling on my land I would have lost that organic status. We have a pedigree herd of Brown Swiss cattle. If chemicals had seeped into the land they would have got into the springs on the farm and could have poisoned my cows.

"The farm, which my family has had for 100 years, would have been worthless, it would have been unsaleable."

The worry has taken its toll on the normally outgoing and positive farmer.

"I am never ill, but over the last three years I have had three bouts of ill health which the doctor says have probably been because the stress has affected my immune system," he said.

"I have lost friends – good friends – because of it. And I have been very worried about the effect all this could have on my 76-year-old mother."

Mr Hickson said the worry had also affected his two farming sons, Wesley and Ashley, and his two young daughters, Jasmine and Callie.

"The two girls said to me recently that I don't spend any time with them," he said.

Even the birth of his nine-month-old granddaughter was affected by the row over the drill site.

"She arrived late and I was just flying out on a holiday that my family had persuaded me to have when she was born – a cause for celebration," he said.

But both events coincided with a Shropshire planning site visit to the farm. Campaigners blocked access roads, meaning that a midwife was not able to go and check up on the newborn baby.

"The worry spoilt the holiday and spoilt the delight at her birth," he said.

He is full of praise for his sons and the way they have dealt with the last three years, and also for friends that have stood by him.

"There have been people who have been so supportive and I have also made new friends who have been incredibly helpful," he said.

"Things that have been said have been deeply hurtful to myself, my mother and my family. But now we can begin a new life. It is such a relief – the stress has just gone.

"I want to get back to farming the land and spending more time with my family."

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