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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 August, 2004, 07:59 GMT 08:59 UK
An elegy for the UK countryside
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Cow at sunset   PA
Farming has lost its place at the apex of rural life
Half a century ago, probably even in the last two or three decades, the UK countryside had a definite purpose.

It was essential to the entire country, because it was where much of our food was produced, which meant employment.

Today we depend on it no more, and so farmers are paid not only to produce herds and harvests but to care for the fields, the wildlife and the landscape.

The UK no longer needs its countryside, except as a park or a rural museum, so it invests less in it than it once did.

Too dear to buy

There is nothing necessarily wrong with treating the countryside as an optional extra to national life, so long as we revise our expectations of it.

Farmers receive about 7p for a loaf which sells for 75p
The number of farmworkers fell by 12% from 1998 to 2001
Farm incomes are 71% below their 1995 level
There are some rich farmers, but many struggle to survive. In 1950 they received about 50 pence from every pound spent on food in the UK. Today they receive about eight pence per pound.

In 2003 the profits of one supermarket chain, Tesco, equalled 60% of all UK farmers' incomes. The supermarkets' profits come from those of us who shop there.

One of the most serious impacts of the countryside's changing role is on people's ability to live there.

The Countryside Agency says a lack of affordable housing means the proportion of homeless households in remote rural districts rose by almost 30% in two years.

Unable to compete

More people moving out of towns caused house prices to rise faster, the agency said, prompting homelessness charities to warn of a "devastating impact" on rural families.

Rural pillarbox   BBC
Post office closures are one index of rural problems
But many rural households are not poor at all, and poverty is not the main problem for most country people.

A 2004 report commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Social And Economic Change And Diversity In Rural England, made this clear.

It said: "The rural areas of England have undergone considerable demographic, social and economic change over the last three to four decades.

"These changes have led to a much more socially and economically differentiated countryside, much less dependent on agriculture and related activities for employment and generally more prosperous than ever before.

About 3,000 rural post offices had closed, with three shutting each week
72% of rural settlements had no shop, and 29% of smaller ones no public transport
53% had no pub: six rural pubs closed each week, and there were fewer than at the Norman Conquest
"Despite this... some parts of rural England still contain areas and settlements experiencing long-standing economic under-performance, social deprivation and lack of services."

Common to the rural rich and poor is the difficulty of finding public services, which are often scarcer or more expensive than in the towns.

Poor transport links mean more car use, busier and more dangerous roads. The National Travel Survey found people in rural areas of Britain in 1998/2000 used cars for nearly 75% of trips; in London residents used cars for 50% of their trips.

New approach

In the larger urban areas nearly 30% of trips were on foot; in rural areas under 20%. The average rural household had to spend 20% of its gross income on the cost of vehicle fuel.

Steam engine   PA
Some parts of rural Britain were better served in the steam age
Despite all this, there has been a welcome for the government's rural strategy, launched last month, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England said could be "very good news".

But the countryside has changed, the mixed farms of memory have given way to intensive agricultural units, and the evocative rural idyll of Edward Thomas's poem Adlestrop, about an English country station, will not return:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there...

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop - only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry...

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

You'd have to look hard today for the birds - and Adlestrop's station closed years ago.


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