John Sheard praises a Dales initiative to bring towns children down on the farm – but expresses some real concerns behind the plan.
THE Yorkshire Dales National Park this week announced plans to invite children to a working farm next month so that – with luck – they can witness one of the wonders of nature (see News).
On any of three days, they could be present to watch the real-life birth of a lamb, the traditional start of a new cycle of life that has been celebrated in the hill country ever since man began to domesticate animals.
And on reading this, I was taken back some 15 years to a visit I paid to Britain’s biggest – and often most misunderstood – landowner, the Duke of Westminster.
The duke is often parodied in the tabloids simply as Britain’s richest townie because of his vast property holdings in London
’s Mayfair. In fact, he spends most of his time – often commuting daily – between his London office and his big estate at Eaton, near Chester
He doesn’t like the Press very much but on this occasion, he had won a prestigious national award for an imaginative, and expensive, conservation programme he had carried out on the estate, which included replacing hundreds of drained farm ponds. So he invited me along to discuss it.
And that day, he told me that he considers himself a countryman through and through with very serious concerns about the yarning chasm of understanding which was opening up between town and country folk.
He regularly invites parties of schoolchildren from the back streets of Merseyside
to visit his farms and their lack of knowledge had astounded him. Some, he said, didn’t even know that milk came from a cow – it was just something that Mum bought in a supermarket.
Even worse, this ignorance can sometimes spread to educated adults. A solicitor once bought a weekend cottage next to one of the Duke’s tenanted farms and then threatened to sue because, on their way to milking, the cattle messed up the road.
“What the hell did he expect me to do?” the Duke fumed. “Put my cows in nappies?” In fact, he said he would fight the offcumden through every court in the land – and nothing more was ever heard of the matter.
This is a funny story but behind it lies a serious problem which is leading to all sorts of social problems as more and more well-to-do surburbanites move to the country. But I am more worried about the children rather than the rich adults.
The fact of the matter is that one of the greatest crisis facing the future of this country is the growing wave of obesity in our children which could swamp the NHS is a few years time with illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
One of the major causes is that young working mothers no longer have the time, and often not the skill, to cook proper meals: they buy junk food full of fat, salt and sugars so that they can pop it into the microwave.
This generation doesn’t want to know that a lamb chop comes from those frisky little white things now gambolling in Dales fields. If they cook fresh meat at all, they delude themselves that it comes into being already wrapped in plastic on a supermarket chiller shelf.
And this is threatening the very existence of Dales hill farmers. They are not big enough producers to enter into supply contracts with the supermarkets and, with dozens of traditional butchers’ shops closing every year, it is becoming more and more difficult to market their produce.
In their initiative to teach children more about rural life, the Dales national park should be congratulated. There are indeed unpleasant truths to be faced – but unless they are faced by a large section of the urban population very soon, our way of life will itself die in the next few generations, suffocated under a blanket of ignorance, prejudice and bigotry.