So often these days people don’t know how vulnerable and fragile the countryside is, and the iconic countryside is taken for granted, so these communities and the land for which they care and of which they are a part are a national asset of incalculable value that, once lost, can never be recreated.

I am delighted to be back in Cumbria today which is such an incredible part of the country.  It is not just because of the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery, but because this is a landscape which has been created and managed over thousands of years by family farmers, who somehow manage to produce some of the highest quality food in unbelievably challenging conditions.  This relationship between land, livestock and man is extraordinarily precious and incredibly fragile it takes unique agricultural skills passed down generation one generation to another to forge a living here.  It is why I have always said that the people of the Fells of Cumbria are as hefted as their sheep, most people of course don’t know what hefted is, but it’s true.   And seldom have their skills been more important as we see each year the increasingly disruptive effect that climate change is having on agricultural production.  We cannot we simply must not turn our back on the ability of the uplands to produce food.  

    But as everyone gathered here today understands, this landscape has another vital role, because tourists love it too.   There is a powerful bond between tourism and our role with communities and that’s one reason I started The Countryside Fund in 2010 and for me that is one reason why I started up my Countryside Fund in 2010.  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.  But the delicately woven tapestry that is our countryside 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 stone walls; no thriving rural communities, no villages or village pubs; no sustainable agriculture, no distinctive local foods.  And this is what my Countryside Fund is addressing by giving grants to a range of organizations and initiatives across the country to help create and sustain a thriving rural community, from apprentice hill farmer schemes here in Cumbria, because many of these skills are in short supply,  to supporting community shops, from encouraging pubs to be the hub of their communities to supporting school farms, from helping women set up in business in rural areas, absolutely key,  to supporting Young Farmers’ Clubs with training schemes.  In just three and a half years we have given £3.8m to over ninety projects touching the lives of 64,000 people.   

And on top of all this, we also have a standing emergency fund which allowed my Fund to give a substantial grant to those affected by the terrible flooding in Somerset two months ago.  The result of this is we’ve had many donations from the public, to the tune of £400,000, we have another additional emergency fund, which as you can imagine is always needed.   

    I hope you have had a chance to meet some of our Cumbrian beneficiaries here today:  Taste Cumbria which promotes the quality and heritage of the incomparable Herdwick lamb and members of the Northern Fells Group, which I will be visiting next to celebrate its fifteenth birthday.  I launched this project in 1999 as one of three rural revival projects I started and which were really the precursor of the Countryside Fund.  At the heart of this extraordinary community initiative is a mini bus run by an army of volunteers breaking down isolation, especially amongst older members of the seven parishes it serves. 

    While my Fund receives the bulk of its income from companies who use the logo on products in return for a donation, I have always wanted to engage with the tourism and hospitality sector to see whether it might be possible to encourage visitors voluntarily to make donations which would go towards maintaining what they have just shown they value so much.  And that is why I am absolutely delighted to be here today with a remarkable group of companies and organizations not the least among them the good old George of Penrith - who have agreed to be part of a pilot project enabling their customers to donate when they visit or buy their pint of ale, through the ingenious 'Pennies' charity.  My gratitude to Cottages4you, The Caravan Club, Farmstay U.K., Featherdown Farms, Adnams, Shepherd Neame and The British Beer and Pub Association.  Some of you are national and some regional but all of you understand the importance of the countryside to your customers and that we need to work hard to give it and those who care for it - a secure and sustainable future.  And this pilot project, which I pray will be taken up by other like minded companies in due course, will enable visitors to make a difference for themselves and all just in time for the 2014 holiday season as well.

    So let me just end by thanking David Curtis-Brignell of the Tourism Society, who I learnt has been instrumental in getting this project off the ground and Visit England for all their support so far plus, of course, these remarkable companies who see the point of what I am trying to do and who share my belief that we must secure the future of our rural communities for this generation and those yet to come.  So often these days people don’t know how vulnerable and fragile the countryside is, and the iconic countryside is taken for granted, so these communities and the land for which they care and of which they are a part are a national asset of incalculable value that, once lost, can never be recreated.