These are frightening statistics that should concern each and every one of us because for what it’s worth I happen to believe deeply that our countryside, wherever it is, is a profoundly precious national asset that should be treasured.

Secretary of State, ladies and gentlemen, I can’t thank The Royal Agricultural Society enough for its extraordinary generosity in even thinking of giving me this award.  I’m told I can keep this, which is wonderful so I’m very grateful indeed and hugely touched to be receiving such an award, and to listen partly to my obituary! At least I’ve heard some of it that’s the great thing.

What you said was enormously flattering, but I can't believe really that I’m that deserving but I just try to do what I can to find a way of helping all those marvellous farming families that I have been lucky enough to meet in one way or another.  And to find out a little bit about the struggles and challenges they face, many of them do wonderful work I think in some of the most difficult areas of the country.

So, the award means so much because, of course, the R.A.S.E. (as it is known to its friends) has, for 170 years, been one of the most preeminent agricultural organizations in the country. I know that recent years have not been the easiest for the Society, particularly with the demise of The Royal Show, but under the dynamic leadership of Henry Cator and Brian Warren enormous efforts are being made to ensure it returns to its rightful place within British farming.

And I know it can be done because the Society has a track record of doing the right thing, whether it be the foresight of creating the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, of which I think I have been Patron of for 30 years or more, so saving the crucial gene pools we need for the future; starting the Arthur Rank Centre, which does so much to help farmers in need; or creating farming and countryside education, thereby helping to reconnect youngsters to the land. That is exactly the sort of leadership we need again to cope with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, water scarcity, sustainable agriculture and concerns about food security – and I have every confidence that the Royal Agricultural Society will respond.

But they cannot do it all alone. So much of rural life is under threat that it will require a massive effort on the part of us all if we are to change the direction in which we are now travelling. One of the difficulties of raising awareness of the problem is that those facing the hardest times are often living cheek-by-jowl with the better-off. They are also living amongst beautiful scenery. But neither fact makes the problems any less real or urgent.

For instance, 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 made a loss, on average, of £3,000. Last year nearly 700 rural pubs closed. The number of Britain’s farmers and farm workers has declined by 26 per cent over the past twenty years. The average age of farmers is now 58 – at last I have found myself older than all the ones retiring - and it is predicted that we need 60,000 new entrants into agriculture and horticulture over the next decade to replace retiring workers – and this is just to allow the farming sector to stand still, never mind expand. And I heard the other day that without the Single Payment Scheme, the average lowland livestock grazing farm would be making only £1,434 a year.

These are frightening statistics that should concern each and every one of us because for what it’s worth I happen to believe deeply that our countryside, wherever it is, is a profoundly precious national asset that should be treasured. So is the food that is grown in it, but which is largely taken for granted. Equally, the people who live in it, many of them farming families, are an invaluable and unique part of our country's heritage and culture. Their skills, their learning and their intuitive wisdom have been built up over long periods of time and have been handed down from generation to generation. As with their hefted flocks, they are hefted people – always an important thing to remember I think.

Perhaps, as never before, their future is intimately linked to that of the whole country. We are facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty. We know that climate change is happening – that is, unless we happen to be a sceptic who believes that there is some sort of climate change conspiracy with the sole objective of undermining capitalism (and believe me, that is exactly what some people think!) – but we don’t yet understand exactly what all this will mean for us.

What we do know is that nothing is more important than providing food for the population – and that I would have thought is called food security. Which is why we need to keep farmers farming, especially those family farmers who farm our upland areas. This extraordinary breed of farmer manages somehow to produce food – and very delicious food indeed – in some of the toughest, harshest conditions: the weather is extreme, the soil is poor and the topography is some of the most challenging. So let no-one complain of hard work until they have spent a year working a hill farm, battling against the elements, and the ability these farmers have to manage in such conditions cannot be learned from books or in a laboratory. It is almost within their very genes. But if we lose those farmers that have these skills, we lose the ability to farm a large proportion of this country. But with such an uncertain future, that would seem to me to be an act of utter folly.

In any event, if we take away the farms and the farmers, what would be left? Scrubland and ghost villages. The countryside so beloved by visitors does not happen by accident. It is farmers who created it and who now care for it. But the role they and their families play goes further than that. It doesn’t matter if it is diversified businesses run by farmers’ wives, school governors, the W.I., Churchwardens and P.C.C. members, midwives, teachers, village shop volunteers, or rotary club – they are so often the very lifeblood of the villages, the valleys and the Dales. They make the communities which those from urban areas find so attractive, and the point is they need help with a largely unseen role.

Now I have heard some people question whether it really matters if farming continues in these areas; that we should just let them revert to how they were before farming began over 3,000 years ago and that, instead, they could just become a sort of extreme adventure playground. To me, that would be an act of ill-considered short-termism, for which we would never be forgiven. Gone would be that timeless connection between Man and Nature; that innate harmony which forms the bedrock of the human story – in other words, a living cultural tradition intimately linked with the love of livestock and landscape. Do we really wish for that? Just think for a moment of the massive risk we would be taking with our future if we effectively removed from production such an enormous acreage. 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 – so long as it is done in an environmentally sustainable way and with biodiversity at the core of it.

Incidentally, only the other day I heard that a water company was expressing real concern about increasing scrubland on the moors. Why? Because it will increase the risk of fires which in their turn release quantities of phosphate into the water systems, which the water companies then have to remove at massive expense. This example alone just demonstrates the complicated interconnectedness of so much that happens in our countryside and which we cannot afford to ignore.

I also happen to believe that we need to work tirelessly to reconnect people to the land and the source of their food. It is precisely why I have been so desperately keen to encourage school farms and school gardens. I have seen some marvellous examples, from school farms which are so successful that their students are regular winners on the agricultural show circuit with their livestock. In fact, even one Sussex school where we helped save the farm, I found that the Duchy hen farm at Highgrove was buying Ayrshire heifers from them, I was frightfully pleased to know about that, they’re such good quality! So, whether they are regular winners on the agricultural show circuit to inner city primary schools growing vegetables in tiny raised beds. It doesn’t matter how it happens, the difference it makes to the children is enormous. Not everyone can or wishes to live in the countryside, but that does not mean they should be denied the opportunity to understand and experience the joy of growing and harvesting, or indeed of looking after animals. What better way could there be of helping to develop a child’s latent potential that would otherwise just be wasted? And what better way when you think about it to combat the epidemic of allergies which we now have in this country, because the Royal College of Physicians found in their study of it that one of the main reasons for this epidemic is lack of exposure to farm animals. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, I for one want to keep our countryside a living, breathing, working place so that it is there for everyone to appreciate. Recently, the advertising agency, M.C.B.D., carried out some very interesting research into how suburban consumers view the countryside. It was fascinating, with an overwhelming majority revealing a real emotional and personal engagement with it. They see it as a place where they can escape from the strains and stresses of their daily lives and they place huge value on the infrastructure: the buildings, the villages, even the gates.

For me, it matters as much that those who live in urban areas have a countryside to visit and to cherish as it does that farmers can continue to live and work on their land producing food for the nation. And the point is that the countryside is like a delicately woven tapestry. Start pulling out the threads and the rest unravels very rapidly indeed.

So, it is for all these reasons that I am announcing today the creation of The Prince’s Countryside Fund. It was an idea I conceived over two years ago, and I can tell you all my staff dread the thought of yet another idea I dreamt up, but over two years ago while staying at my favourite bed and breakfast in Cumbria – a National Trust farm in Borrowdale run by Joe and Hazel Relph, who I am thrilled to see here today - no doubt they have escaped a deluge in the fells. Over supper, the Relphs and a neighbouring hill farmer had been telling me about the challenges they were facing and, even more importantly, the ideas they had to encourage young people to stay on the land. They also expressed a great fear that in 10 years or so there could be a catastrophic loss of upland farmers.

It suddenly occurred to me that there is a multitude of remarkable organizations and individuals working tirelessly to keep farmers farming, to keep our rural communities alive and to reconnect people to the land and where their food comes from– and with plenty of ideas about what more could be done to help. The problem is that all of them are struggling for funds – and that is where the idea for the Fund began. But it wasn’t until I talked to Mark Price, who chairs my Rural Action Programme at Business in the Community, that we could make any progress.

Mark saw the point immediately and gathered together a group of like-minded business leaders whose companies all have a special connection to the British countryside and who understand its importance.

So in what, I hope, will be a rather effective piece of cause-related marketing – as it is known in the parlance! – these companies and brands are making a contribution to the Fund and, in return, will bear its logo on their products and in their stores and restaurants. The Fund, which I am so pleased to say already stands at just over £1 million, will distribute the money into grassroots projects that are helping to create a vibrant, sustainable future for rural Britain. We have three objectives – first of all to improve the sustainability of British farming and rural communities, targetting the areas of greatest need – and to begin with that means our upland areas; secondly, to reconnect consumers with countryside issues; and, thirdly, to support farming crisis charities in times of need.

I am delighted to be able to announce the first three recipients, each of which is, I think, a perfect example of what I have been describing, and we will hear from their representatives in a moment… The first is a very special organization called the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service – known as UTASS. It is based in County Durham and I have had the great pleasure of visiting its headquarters on two previous occasions. It a charity set up by local people in the year 2000 after it became clear that the local farming community was in deep trouble. There were unprecedented levels of suicide and a general sense of mounting despair. Led by some very remarkable local people, including Diane Spark, UTASS was established, and it now provides a raft of services, including helping farmers with the ever-burgeoning paperwork which many find so difficult. And let me say here that just because farmers cannot cope with bureaucracy does not make them bad farmers!

However, there is no doubt at all it is a problem that can bring a good farm to its knees. That is why it matters so much that help is given. UTASS is also running another initiative to train farmers to use computers, so they can manage more easily in a world which is now dominated by I.T. I am, therefore, delighted the trustees of the Fund have decided that UTASS should be one of the first projects it supports.

The second project is a new venture from The Farmer Network, which operates in Cumbria, called the Hill Farming Succession Scheme. We know that one of the greatest threats to upland farmers is a lack of young people to follow in their footsteps. This apprenticeship scheme will train eight young people over a two-year period in hill farming skills, gaining experience while being mentored and trained by farmers and local agricultural colleges. Not only will it teach a new generation the necessary skills, but it will also provide much-needed, hands-on support to hill farmers at an affordable cost. One of the many benefits is that this will help to keep the landscape looking attractive for the visitors, with well-maintained stone walls and hedges.

The third scheme will meet the Fund’s objective to support local communities by giving a grant to “Pub is the Hub”. I fear it may sound like a total conflict of interest when I say that this is a project I established some eight years ago, but I can assure you that I had no hand in the independent trustees’ decision to award it a grant! “Pub is the Hub” is the only national advisory body working directly with licensees, linking up with both private and public sector partners, to support rural regeneration projects which put pubs at the heart of villages.

I have seen so many of these projects in action and they do make the whole difference to villages which have lost their shop or post office. And in some cases they have become computer training centres. But while “Pub is the Hub” has been active in many regions, it has not had the funding to work in Wales. And today that will change and with a grant from The Prince’s Countryside Fund, “Pub is the Hub” will now become “y dafarn yw’r gallon,” which is very encouraging.

As I said a moment ago, one of our objectives is to have a dedicated emergency funding stream for the Farming Help Charities. It will be there for them to call on whenever they see a need. I, like all of you, remember only too well the horrors of Foot and Mouth in 2001 and then again in 2007. While I hope and pray we never see the like again, my Fund wants to be prepared for that or any other emergency. For instance, there was the recent disaster which hit so many dairy farmers when Dairy Farmers of Great Britain collapsed and, of course, the horrific floods which affected so much of Cumbria. The Farming Help Charities are a wonderful group of organizations which do outstanding work and I just want to be sure that if ever they have a need, they know they will have our full support.

Well ladies and gentlemen, the creation of this Fund has only been possible due to the far-sightedness of some very remarkable people and to them all I want to offer my most heartfelt thanks – to the companies which have led the way by becoming the founding supporters: in other words, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, ASDA, Morrisons, Jordans (for which I particularly want to thank the R.A.S.E. President, George Weston), Hovis, Birds Eye, McDonalds, Country Life, Ginsters, Müller, Booths, United Biscuits, Walkers and, of course, Duchy Originals! I am enormously grateful to Tor Harris, the Director of my Rural Action Programme at Business in the Community, who has shown such determination and worked so incredibly hard. And, I need hardly say that I am indebted to Mark Price and the members of the Rural Action Leadership Team for making it all possible and leading from the front – I dread to think quite how many arms Mark has twisted along the way, but anyway he has been amazing!

So ladies and gentlemen, the door is now firmly open for additional companies, tourist businesses, hotels, shops and other supermarkets who share a determination to see a thriving British countryside to contribute to this Fund and, indeed, for individuals to donate too. As we enter a period of financial austerity, there could not be a more important moment or time for companies and individuals to join in a crucial cause-related marketing initiative that demonstrates true social and environmental responsibility. For exactly twenty-five years, this is what I have been trying to encourage, as President of Business in the Community. In the 1980s and 1990s, our attention was rightly focussed on the problems in our urban areas. That work continues, but now there is a challenge in our rural areas. The Countryside Fund can help to tackle it. The countryside, what it does, what it produces and what it offers impacts on us all.

So, ladies and gentlemen, today is only the beginning, but the potential is enormous as we all strive to protect our rural communities and sustain, for this generation and those yet to come, a national asset of incalculable value and one, and we must remember this, that once lost, can never ever be recreated.