When London welcomes the world at the opening ceremony of the Olympics later this week the first thing the world will see is a striking image of the great British Countryside. Green fields, cows, sheep, horses, geese and children dancing round maypoles. As a passionate supporter of our countryside my first reaction was one of real pleasure. Growing up on a dairy farm in Cornwall, farming was all I ever saw myself doing. All I ever wanted to do. Then of course rugby came along and things worked out a little differently.
Even so I'm still a country boy at heart and the idea that the countryside was to take centre stage in London's great pageant felt good. Then I thought about it a little more. What if the Olympic spectacular, paints a falsely romantic picture of what it is like to live in rural Britain today? A vision of some rural Idyll, where all is well within our "Isles of Wonder". This would do little to help those of us who are fighting to raise awareness of the serious issues that affect our countryside today.
The good news is that our rural economy still employs around five and half million people and our farmers have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. Domestic Food and drink production is a real success story, contributing around £22 billion of much needed income to our economy while rural tourism brings in £14 billion more.
But look a little closer and a bleaker picture starts to emerges. Village shops, the lifeblood of many a rural community, are a dying breed with 800 closing each year. One fifth of rural post offices have gone since the start of this century too. Prospects for young people are a real worry with 40% of 16-24 years olds currently unemployed, a situation not helped by the closure of over half of rural job centres over recent years. And with small businesses generating over half of all countryside jobs, compared with just a quarter in urban areas, it's easy to see how the failure of banks to lend money to smaller businesses will hit the countryside harder. Farming too faces problems, one of which is its aging population. The average age of the decision maker on a British hill farm is now 58 and 60,000 new entrants needed into farming over the next 10 years.
These are all issues that the Prince's Countryside Fund is working to help solve. Set up in 2010 by The Prince of Wales it raises money from some of the country's leading businesses and channels it to projects that aim to make a real difference to the lives of people in the countryside. It is not about giving hand-outs but identifying projects that have a real chance of succeeding and giving them the financial assistance they need. A new series of grants was announced this week with over £400,000 of new funding going to 11 projects. These include a rural stress helpline, a fast broadband network to support communities and businesses Cumbria's Upper Eden Valley and a community trust which aims to buy a Norfolk pub to keep it open and redevelop it as a community hub. This brings the total amount of grants to over £1.5 million since 2010. That may not seem a lot but it is going to people who are spending the money wisely and already making a difference.
So I will certainly be sitting down to watch the London 2012 opening ceremony and I will raise a glass to Danny Boyle for ensuring that our great British countryside holds pride of place at the heart of the show. It is one of our true national treasures and it is right that we should celebrate it. But let's not forget that for many living and working in countryside today the reality is a bit less green and not always quite so pleasant as the picture that may be presented.
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