Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Farmers' leader fears rural desert
Exmoor in winter: If farmers have to leave, it will look very different
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby
The president of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill, says he fears that agriculture's present crisis will force many of his members to abandon the land.
Mr Gill, speaking at the launch of a questionnaire being sent to 83,000 NFU members, said some of the more remote parts of Britain could become as empty as areas in central France.
The NFU, which says it represents about 75% of farmers in England and Wales, will use the results of its "Audit for Action" to lobby ministers at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth in September.
Mr Gill said farmers had known hard times over the past few years, but now increasing numbers were facing desperation.
Farm incomes had fallen 75% in the last two years, but the bare statistics did not show the real story.
"We are now like the family cat or dog, sitting beside the table hoping for scraps when everyone else has taken their profit - and in some cases it is a very large profit.
"The government is spending less than 40% of gross national product, less even than Margaret Thatcher, who was derided for it. Where is the social conscience?"
Mr Gill added: "In France they have a name for what has happened to places like the Massif Central, where people have been forced off the land.
"They call it desertification. I don't want to see it here.
"But rural depopulation will be the consequence of this crisis if nothing is done to help farmers.
"Then you will lose local businesses, the village shop, the garage and the pub, and the church and the school will close.
"People will not have the resources any longer to maintain things like stone walls. There won't be the animals to graze the hills, and you'll get a quite different sort of vegetation taking over.
"This crisis is accelerating, and many farmers are clinging on by their fingertips. Depopulation like France's is a real possibility."
The audit, a 24-question survey, asks farmers to give details of their own economic situation, to tell "a real-life, real-time story of the financial crisis which is now affecting tens of thousands of farmers and their families".
Ben Gill says it is a story "which no one, least of all the People's Government, can ignore".