It was my concern to do what I could to help keep our countryside a living, breathing, working place, for everyone to appreciate, that led me to set up my Countryside Fund.

This time last year I was asked to be this magazine’s Guest Editor.  It was a wonderful opportunity to fill the available space with articles by people whose contributions to the countryside I respect and hold in such high regard.  They epitomise so much that is best about the rural areas of our remarkable country and I hoped that reading about their work, craftsmanship, products and ideas would inspire others, as it does me. 
In the editorial I wrote, I tried to explain how the rich, natural tapestry that is the countryside we value so highly does not just happen by itself.  It is the product of many generations of human activity, working in harmony with the natural world.  But that delicately woven tapestry is facing unprecedented challenges.  Start pulling out the threads and the rest unravels very rapidly indeed, and is very difficult to put back again no farmers, no beautiful landscapes with hedgerows and stone walls; no thriving rural communities, no villages or village pubs; no local markets, no distinctive local foods. 

    Somehow, we need to find a way to put a value on our countryside, with all its facets.  It isn’t an easy process, because we all tend to value different things, but also because so many features of our countryside have an intrinsic value that goes far beyond the realm of economics.  How much should we bid for the haunting cry of a curlew or a green plover; a moss covered stone wall, an ancient hedgerow or the scent of a newly-mown, flower-rich hay meadow? At a larger scale, how much for heather on the moors, a meandering stream or a beech wood in Spring?  And we might add country pubs and rural post offices to this list too.

    Even though, happily for some of us, there will always be intangible aspects of the countryside that defy attempts at valuation, there is a good deal of recent work that has succeeded in measuring the contribution made by ‘ecosystem services’ to the wider economy.  This has revealed, to give just one example, that meadows and other semi-natural grasslands are estimated to store around 300 million tonnes of carbon.  They also provide homes for pollinating insects, which are estimated to be worth £440 million a year to the agricultural economy.  They prevent soil loss due to erosion by water and wind, and they enable good rates of water infiltration, which helps to prevent flooding.  And finally, as places of rare beauty, they play a big role in tourism too.  The South Downs alone receive around 40 million visitor days each year, and those visitors put over £300 million into the local economy.

    There is, of course, a much longer list of ecosystem services provided by the natural capital embodied in our soils, forests, rivers, wetlands and coastal waters.  These services are all part of an environmental economy that often goes unrecognized.  And one of the most interesting things about this hidden economy is that it is all located in the countryside and the shores around it.  Our towns and cities, and all the economic activity that they generate, are ultimately dependent on the countryside, both here and abroad.  This is not a one way street, with activities such as tourism operating in the opposite direction, and nor is it a new development, but I do think it is a factor that is all too easily overlooked.

    In attempting to ascribe proper value to the countryside and the myriad of services it provides, we need to think much harder about the people who live and work there, many of whom are nurturing this country’s natural capital on behalf of us all.  It should be a real and pressing concern to all of us that farmers in the upland areas of this country, such as the Cumbrian Fells, the Yorkshire Dales, the hills of Wales and the Highlands of Scotland last year earned, on average, £8,000. With those sorts of figures it is perhaps no surprise that the number of Britain’s farmers and farm workers has declined drastically over the past twenty years.  But the consequence is that 60,000 new entrants are needed in the U.K. farming sector, across agriculture and horticulture, in the next decade to ensure its sustainability.  

Rural communities are under huge pressure and it is becoming increasingly difficult for rural doctors’ practices, local schools, village halls and community centres to remain viable.  Recent figures show that annually the rate of closures of rural pubs has been as high as 700 in one year and furthermore 400 village shops have recently closed over a twelve month period,  and that is despite the efforts of my "Pub is the Hub" initiative over the past 13 years.

Whether we are thinking of the countryside as a place of breath-taking beauty to be visited and treasured or, more prosaically, as the home of the ecosystem services that underpin our economy, these stark figures tell an alarming story.  The land and the landscape depend on farming and other human activities just as much as rural people depend on the land.  

It was my concern to do what I could to help keep our countryside a living, breathing, working place, for everyone to appreciate, that led me to set up my Countryside Fund.  In my travels around the country, over so many years, I have come across a number of remarkable organizations and individuals working tirelessly to keep farmers farming and our rural communities alive. Seeing their work at first hand has made a lasting impression on me. Whether they are supporting farmers in need, helping maintain rural skills, carrying out vital conservation and restoration work, keeping the pubs and shops open, or helping to reconnect people to the land and the source of their food, they are all helping to sustain the future of the countryside.

I am pleased to say that my Fund has had some real successes since its formation in 2010. With the help of our supporting companies, we have been able to provide much-needed funding to develop stronger and more sustainable farm and rural businesses, train the farmers of the future and enable rural communities and enterprises to thrive.  So far, the Fund has provided £4.4 million in grants distributed to 105 projects across the country, directly benefitting 80,000 people and 140 communities. 

I cannot even begin to describe the breadth of projects, except to say that they range from recognising that in rural communities the pub can be very much "The Hub", to providing apprenticeships for the next generation of aspirant hill farmers in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales; and from promoting Herdwick lamb to helping schoolchildren in economically disadvantaged urban areas learn about the countryside.  These grassroots projects are helping to create a vibrant, sustainable future for rural Britain.  There is also an emergency fund for times of need, used most recently to support the farmers and communities affected by the disastrous flooding earlier this year.

Until now, most of the funding, which has made this work possible has come from some far-sighted businesses, which have joined what is essentially a cause related marketing scheme (including Duchy Originals), and a few equally far-sighted and generous individuals, all of whom really understand how much is at stake, and want to do something to help before it is too late.  But on Sunday 29th March we plan to broaden our activities with a special fundraising race day at Ascot racecourse.  It will be the final Jumps meeting of Ascot’s season, combined with a chance for everyone to see what has been achieved thus far, through a series of displays featuring activities supported by the Fund all of which will hopefully appeal to at least some of the readers of this famous magazine... 

When I look back over the changes that have occurred in attitudes to the countryside during my lifetime, one of the things that strikes me most forcibly is the extent to which the majority of the population has lost any real connection with the land. Unlike in most parts of the continent of Europe, many people in the U.K. are now four or more generations removed from anyone who actually worked on the land and it frequently shows in their attitudes. They have only a vague understanding of what farming is or does; and as outsiders looking in they are increasingly suspicious of it.  At the same time, they treasure the countryside.  

A survey by my Countryside Fund showed that over 90% valued the countryside for relaxation, fresh air and peace, and felt it was important that it should be protected.  Yet farming has been shaping the land for over 3,000 years, giving us the landscape we know and love.  Indeed, the word ‘landscape’, which in several languages can be traced back to before 500A.D., originally meant a clearing carved out of the forest for farmed animals and crops. 

I do think we need to work harder at explaining the ways in which human activity over thousands of years has shaped the landscape and what would happen if those activities were to cease.  I know there are people who question whether it really matters if farming continues in these areas, suggesting that we should just let them revert to how they were before farming began over 3,000 years ago. To me, that would be a folly for which future generations would never forgive us. Apart from anything else, with the threat from climate change and the risk of reliance on international transportation we should be keeping as much land in food production as possible, but in a way that is more in harmony with Nature.
I simply cannot see a viable future for the countryside that does not have the farmer and the family farmer is a vital element in this as food producer, at the front and centre of the picture. But the challenges we face now are only going to become more intense as the world struggles to feed a growing population while, at the same time, accelerating climate change makes that all the more difficult unless farming systems become more resilient. So, as far as I am concerned, it would not only be a folly to lose agricultural land, it would be equally foolish to use it in ways that are not environmentally sustainable in the long-term.  

The environmental health of farmland is a complex topic, with results that vary widely depending on the way that individual farmers choose to work their land.  But if we look at the Government’s latest farmland birds index, which has just been published and is widely regarded as a good environmental indicator, the results are profoundly depressing.  The index is now at its lowest level ever, having declined by 55% from 1970.  And that figure includes species such as wood pigeon and jackdaw, both of which have more than doubled over the period. The species identified as ‘farmland specialists’, which include the skylark, lapwing and yellowhammer, all of which are guaranteed to light up any country walk, have declined by a horrifying 70%.  
It is impossible to know what this decline signifies for the ecosystem services that I mentioned earlier as making such a significant contribution to the wider economy.  But to pick just a couple of examples, the loss of pollinating insects to agricultural chemicals and the loss of wet grazing areas that can absorb flooding seem to be mirrored all too clearly in the decline of skylarks and lapwings respectively.
It may be an old-fashioned view, but I believe passionately that farming and indeed all the other activities which take place in the countryside, such as forestry and tourism, ought to be practised as a partnership between mankind and Nature, operating on a human scale and respecting Nature’s limits.  In that partnership I believe we must accept that all our actions have consequences, and that we have a duty of stewardship for the natural world.  The degree of skill, commitment and foresight we apply to that duty will shape our own destiny, and that of our children.
As a final thought, leaving aside material considerations, it seems to me to be certain that our children and grandchildren will live in an even busier, more stressful and more crowded world than our own. Their need to escape to the peace and beauty of the countryside we love will certainly be no less than ours.  It is our job to make that possible.