Helen Aldis: Rural way of life is key to prosperity

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IT’S staggering to think that 12 million people live and work in rural Britain, yet rural affairs all too often take a back seat to what is happening in our cities. This week marks National Countryside Week, which gives us a chance to focus on some of the issues facing the countryside. We are all rural consumers: we eat food from UK farms, enjoy leisure time in the great outdoors and value its biodiversity, landscape and tranquillity. But are rural issues and opportunities given the air time they deserve?

Here are a few figures. The rural economy employs some five-and-a-half million people, with domestically-produced food and drink contributing £22bn to the UK economy. Eighty per cent of the land area in the UK is farmland, and 70 per cent of our drinking water comes from our upland areas. Farmers manage more than 85 per cent of the countryside, which includes looking after fences and footpaths, providing habitats for wildlife including insects, birds and animals, sowing wildflowers and planting and maintaining woodland.

As His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, who set up The Prince’s Countryside Fund four years ago, says: “The British countryside is the unacknowledged backbone of our national identity. It is as precious as any of our great cathedrals and we erode it at our peril.”

Britain is more reliant on food imports than at any stage over the last 40 years, as an increasing number of sheep and dairy farmers abandon the industry. Not just that, but over half of UK farms are in the hands of farmers aged 55 and over. The simple truth is that we need more young and dynamic people to go into farming – 60,000 in the next decade to keep the industry working at a similar level to today. We must support and invest in British agriculture to ensure the best and brightest continue to enter the profession.

To that end, The Prince’s Countryside Fund has given £4.4m in grants in four years to provide support to the multitude of remarkable organisations and individuals working tirelessly to keep farmers farming and our rural communities alive. In Yorkshire alone, the Fund has supported a number of projects dedicated to training and inspiring young people to consider and make careers in the countryside.

The Clervaux Trust helps young people to develop skills and experience in growing and harvesting, animal husbandry and land-based craft skills to reconnect them back to the land. The Yorkshire Moors Agricultural Apprenticeship Scheme gives budding hill farmers a chance to learn the skills to help preserve farming and life on the Moors for generations to come.

Scratch the surface of any rural landscape and you’ll find it’s alive with enterprise. Rather surprisingly, there are more businesses per head of population in rural areas than in urban. From farm stay holiday lets, to farm shops, handbag designers, to children’s pyjamas, to established online retailers; there is a myriad of small businesses emerging and thriving in rural Britain. We must do all we can to support them.

Yet rural businesses face challenges that are very different to working in urban businesses. Connectivity is key. Broadband, which many of us accept as essential as running water, is still not fully accessible in many rural regions. As pubs, village shops and services close down each year, isolation and the decline of rural communities are big issues.

Yorkshire is one of Britain’s largest and most important rural economies, and confidence is growing in both the economy and job market. Defra reports that total income from farming in the Yorkshire and Humber region is estimated to have risen between 2012 and 2013 by 12 per cent to £677m. But farming is just a fraction of the value of Yorkshire’s rural economy. Factor in Yorkshire’s tourism trade, which is worth an estimated £7bn, and the Yorkshire countryside is looking full of potential and promise.

We need to recognise and value the impact the rural economy makes to the national good, and look after those who work and maintain the countryside. Putting rural affairs on the agenda is key to keeping the countryside in business.

Self-sufficiency is just one issue the rural economy is facing, but our declining food production for a growing population underscores the fact that we’re not realising the full potential of our countryside and exploring the best use of what is our greatest natural asset.