Page last updated at 00:22 GMT, Wednesday, 8 July 2009 01:22 UK

The curtain falls on Royal Show

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent

Longhorn cattle at the Royal Show
Longhorn cattle during judging at the last ever Royal Show

One of the highlights of the farming year, the Royal Agricultural Show, will be closing at the end of this week after more than 150 years.

The Royal, as it was always known in the farming community, has been a mixture of business and pleasure for the farming community, but a lack of interest, bad weather and animal diseases have contributed to the decline.

"I think it's fair to say that the agricultural gods have not smiled on us recently," said Dennis Chamberlain, the communications director of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, the organisers of the Royal Show.

We are surveying the show site after the traditional NFU journalists' breakfast (proper sausages, fragrant black pudding and tea you can stand your spoon up in). It is pouring with rain, raindrops the size of cherries bouncing off Mr Chamberlain's golf umbrella.

I think it's fair to say that we have not reacted fast enough to the changing place of farming in this country
Dennis Chamberlain
Royal Agricultural Society of England

Mr Chamberlain is a bit of an institution himself: a part of the industry for several decades, he, as much as anyone, knows what a hole the absence of the Royal will leave in the farming calendar.

Generations of farmers took their children and grandchildren to the Royal: a day out before harvest to look at the new tractors and technical equipment on offer, cast envious glances at others' prize livestock in the cattle lines or simply to have an ice cream and a glass of Pimms while listening to the jazz band playing on the lawn.

Precious memories

And many of those for whom the question "will you be at the Royal?" was part of every day conversation from May onwards cannot quite believe that the showground here in Stoneleigh in Warwickshire will no longer be home to the glossy-maned horses or quad bike displays of previous years.

The barns where the cattle lines are placed are dark, the scent of hay sweet and heavy as the cattle take their rest. Outside, muscular animals are being hosed down.

Scene from the royal
Bad luck has contributed to the show's downfall

"This one has had about 14 baths in the last few days," said one farmer. He was pleased as his animals got sixth prize, an award all the more poignant for being the last. So will he miss the Royal?

He said: "Oh yes, of course. For livestock, it was still the one prize everyone wanted. And it was a real honour to be here. For livestock judges, it was the ultimate accolade.

"You were only allowed to do it once. My friend had been waiting for 40 years - he was asked to judge next year - and of course, now there will be no show."

But many who were attending to their cattle said the management of the show in the last few years had, as far as they were concerned, got worse rather than better.

The efficiency of the registration process, the facilities, the access and parking facilities. There were many complaints, although more in sorrow than anger.

The Royal Show
Spectators brave the wet weather to watch the judging for the last time

"I think it's fair to say that we have not reacted fast enough to the changing place of farming in this country," admitted Mr Chamberlain.

Indeed, there have been many questions asked here in the tea rooms and marquees by those who love the Royal.

Bad luck

Why, with a 100,000 people visiting every year was the Royal so unprofitable?

Why did the show not make the link between food and farming in its marketing, which has proved so successful for many other country shows?

Why has the tremendous interest, in the last couple of years, in growing your own not been capitalised on?

But while more could have been done with the business model, there is no doubt that bad luck has played its part.

A host of animal diseases - BSE, foot and mouth and last year, bluetongue - have crippled the livestock shows and even closed the show down altogether (the only other time that happened was during wartime).

Two years ago, the Royal was partially washed out by that summer's torrential rains.

So, what will fill the gap the Royal will leave? Many of the county agricultural shows have been going from strength to strength on the back of the popularity of locally produced, high-quality food and they will no doubt pickup business as a result of the Royal's demise.

The show's organisers have also promised that they will be holding smaller events - perhaps the livestock shows or an educational programme for schoolchildren.

But the Royal as thousands know it has come to an end. And everyone says tears will be shed when, on Friday, the final tractors are loaded on to their trailers, the final animal is led on to its transportation, and, finally, the gates are closed on a piece of farming history.



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