Yorkshire may have earned the grand nickname of God’s own country, but it’s an epithet that could just as easily be applied to any rural corner of England’s green and pleasant land, as immortalised by William Blake in his 19th Century poem, And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times.
Written in 1808 then largely forgotten, it is now, of course, better known as the patriotic anthem Jerusalem, after being set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916.
“Dark Satanic mills” aside, Blake wrote about those feet in olden days walking on England’s mountains green, pleasant pastures seen and clouded hills.
It’s a romantic image of the countryside that we have come to know, love and would probably all fight to our last breath to protect.
But the verdant countryside we all take for granted has nothing to do with either God or Mother Nature.
Indeed, until fairly recently in historical terms, much of Britain’s landscape was covered in thick forests and there would have been no open vistas to enjoy.
The great British countryside is actually man-made.
Over thousands of years, the trees have been felled, first so we could grow crops and feed newly-domesticated livestock, and later by royal edict to provide timber for warships, merchant vessels and houses.
Now, the majority of the population lives in concrete urban jungles. But we still go dewy-eyed about our contrived countryside and head off to breathe in its fresh air and drink in its often awe-inspiring rural scenes.
It’s a pleasure we can only indulge in, however, thanks to the hard work and dedication of those responsible for first creating, and now helping, preserve Britain’s countryside: our farmers and landowners.
But Britain’s green and pleasant man-made landscape is under threat; not from climate change (although that will undoubtedly alter the way we all live in the future); not from developers; and not from yet more EU and Government legislation.
The danger lies much closer to home.
British farming is in crisis. In 1939, there were almost 500,000 farms in the UK, employing 15% of the population. Now, there are only around 300,000 employing just 2%.
The pace of farm losses has stepped up dramatically in recent years. The reasons are simple. The cost of animal feed has skyrocketed and overall farm costs are running at 36% more than they were eight years ago.
Consumers are spending just as much on food, but less of that cash is finding its way back into producers’ pockets. And years of falling milk prices mean for the first time in living memory, there are now fewer than 10,000 UK dairy farmers.
The situation has become so dire, the average annual farm business income is now just over £43,000.
Farmers and landowners have traditionally been the guardians of our countryside; the people who keep it the way we like it.
But farmers crippled with worsening debts no longer see a future. They’re moving on. While the wider public may have been able to turn a blind eye to the plight of rural dwellers, witnessing the wasting away of the countryside with fewer and fewer people to care for it, could be the wake-up call that’s been sorely needed nationally. As the Prince of Wales recently said as he reinforced his support for the UK’s most vulnerable farmers and small communities through his Countryside Fund: “People visit the countryside and it’s always there, but people don’t understand how much work has to go into maintaining it and keeping it like that.”
The prince has been vocal about Britons having “only a vague understanding” of farming and has warned, with many now four or more generations removed from family who worked the land, any real connection with the countryside has been lost.
This, he stated in a special interview with Country Life magazine to mark his 66th birthday last November, “frequently shows in their attitudes. They are increasingly suspicious of it. At the same time, they treasure the countryside.
“The rich, natural tapestry that is the countryside we value so highly does not just happen by itself. But that delicately woven tapestry is facing unprecedented challenges.”
No farmers would mean no beautiful landscapes, no thriving rural communities and no unique, locally produced artisan foods. The time has come to support the people living and working in our rural areas, and by turn for the agricultural industry to show the wider public what farming delivers.
One group that has already taken the bull by the horns is the Glendale Agricultural Society (GAS) in Northumberland. For the past 11 years, it has been running its award-winning Children’s Countryside Day aimed at reconnecting town and city youngsters with their rural roots and teaching them about where their food comes from.
This year, around 1,600 primary school children are expected to be at the free event on June 4 at the Glendale Showground near Wooler. It will incorporate 65 countryside-based industries, and the children will have the chance to see farm animals and machinery close up, meet those involved in agriculture and take part in interactive demonstrations.
An army of volunteers will be on hand to help, including farmer and Children’s Countryside Day chairman, Andrew Reed.
The 34-year-old farms 1,800 acres of land at three sites between Goswick and Norham. He is father to 14-month-old Jinny and his wife Nicole, 30, is expecting their second daughter in May.
As a parent, he knows how vital it is to teach the next generation in a fun way about the countryside, the importance of farming and where their food comes from.
He says: “It’s true people have lost touch with the countryside. I was always going to be a farmer. My grandfather passed the farms on to my father and in turn he has passed them on to me.
“I have grown up with the countryside, but that is not the case for the majority anymore. Kids these days have only a tenuous link to the countryside and farming. It’s important we try to bridge that gap in their knowledge and they hopefully go home and chat to their parents and grandparents about what they have learnt.
“Last year, children on the countryside day learnt about how milk from cows is used to make cheese, butter and ice cream and how crisps are made from potatoes.
“They got the chance to make bread and see birds of prey.
“The children are always really enthusiastic and it’s great to see the excitement on their faces. I am always amazed by the sensible questions they ask.”
Andrew firmly believes the future of farming and the countryside relies on rousing children’s interest and getting them to see there is more to life than staring at a computer.
He has heard of children who attended some of the early countryside days who have since been inspired to take up agriculture as a career.
The arable farmer who specialises in winter wheat, spring and winter barley for the whisky trade, oil seed rape and beans, says he has to be confident about the future.
Adults are proving more problematic; those whose memories of farmers is a now hopelessly out-of-date image of bad-tempered, cigarette-smoking, misogynistic, money-grabbing men whose sole purpose in life was to keep the public off their land.
Thankfully, Andrew says: “We are moving with the times.”
Most farmers and landowners want to engage with the public. They are only too aware that food and farming issues are not given much thought by the public, and that agriculture is seen as having less of a role now than it ever has. This is because there is a perception it’s an industry in decline and that with supermarkets now stocking goods from across the globe, home-grown farming is less important.
There’s also a negative view farmers are all in receipt of whacking taxpayer-funded subsidies – especially those who have welcomed renewable energy on to their land – and many struggle to understand why anyone should be paid to farm.
While it may be possible to educate and nurture today’s children, Andrew fears it could take either a catastrophe or radical militant action for older generations to truly back British farming and the £8.6bn plus it injects into the economy.
“Even when you get things like foot and mouth, there would have been a good percentage of the country who either didn’t know it was happening, or didn’t care.
“I play cricket in Berwick and a lot of my team-mates don’t understand what it is I do. How you would teach 90% of the country why farming is important, I wouldn’t have a clue. Unfortunately, it would probably take a mass French-style blockade, or for the supermarkets to run out of food, for people to realise why farming and the countryside is still important.”
The ray of hope is the work being done with children. “It’s really important we continue to educate about rural issues and country life, and absolutely vital children continue to learn about where their food comes from and the role of farming in their everyday lives,” Andrew concludes.