The news that a farmer who jabbed a shotgun barrel at a trespassing hot-air balloonist received a jail sentence (News, 26 May) has started me thinking what is the best way of dealing with airborne trespassers? Commercial hot-air ballooning companies know full well, from the moment they take off, that they will end their flight by committing an offence. But they dont care. This is for three reasons: firstly, most trespass is merely a civil offence. Secondly, the offer of payment of a notional landing fee (typically about £10) effectively absolves them from any sanction. And lastly, if all else fails, they can always try to provoke the hapless farmer or gamekeeper into some sort of response that might constitute an alleged criminal offence. This is particularly useful when the farmer or gamekeeper happens to be on their own.
Take a look at this official advice from a balloonist website: If anyone threatens you personally, or you feel threatened, then call the police immediately. They may not wish to get involved in a case of trespass as this is a civil case, but in cases where you have been personally threatened then it is a criminal case and they have to.
Of yes, the hot-air ballooning fraternity are well aware of how to use the vagaries of the law to their commercial advantage. If your penned pheasants are scared into oblivion by a low-flying balloon firing its burners right over them, tough. I mean, have you ever heard of anybody actually being paid compensation in such cases?
For arable farmers, the damage caused by a balloon landing in a standing crop might admittedly be easier to prove. Often, however, the real damage is done by a recovery vehicle driving across a field and I am told they are adept at roaring in, loading up, and then rushing out before any action can be taken.
Of course, the majority of balloon operators try to minimise any damage or disturbance. They operate according to codes of practice that lessen the chances of confrontation and conflict. But the general principle of a business activity that depends on committing trespass against the private property of other people has to be questionable.
I have never had a hot-air balloon land on my own farm, but we do sometimes get very low flying military aircraft. Some F16s came over the other day, making a hell of a racket. They were flying towards the NATO electronic warfare range at Spadeadam, Cumbria. Thats a good few miles away from us, but these planes move at such a speed that they sometimes line up an approach from many miles out. Why on earth does RAF Spadeadam sanction very low flying over livestock farms, shortly after lambing, near a national nature reserve that hosts wildfowl that pose an airstrike risk, in a national park and a World Heritage Site? Its not as though they dont have plenty of choice they have the vast expanse of Kielder Forest to play over.
Worse, the warplanes in this latest incident were not even ours, they were German (and no, I didnt mention the war when I spoke to the local low-flying liaison officer). It turns out that in Germany, military planes are simply not allowed to fl y like this. So they come over here and trash the tranquillity of our national parks instead. Is that galling, or what?
I have been told that, legally, aircraft flying very close to the surface of private land might be committing an offence against the landowner, but the military, of course, have Crown immunity. I dont know if this immunity extends to the military of foreign powers invited over here by our Government, but whatever the legal technicalities, there is nowt we can do about it.
Hot-air balloons operated by commercial companies, on the other hand, have no such defence. I wonder is one allowed to clamp or detain a landed balloon until a reasonable fee is paid?