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Tim Bonner: How bridging divides could resolve differences

There might not be an obvious connection between Captain Ian Farquhar, whose memorial service was held at Badminton last week, and Sir Keir Starmer. However, as the Alliance revealed that Sir Keir comes from a long line of gamekeepers and rural workers and we remembered Ian’s long hunting career which started with the Bicester and Warden Hill Hunt in 1973, it was difficult not to see in both histories the huge societal changes that have so fundamentally changed the countryside, and the country, in the past 50 years.


Since the 1970s, the number of people directly employed in agriculture has more than halved from 400,000 to well below 200,000. For every job in farming there are many other associated roles which rely on the industry – for instance Sir Keir’s grandfather was a farrier – so when the whole UK population was around 56 million, a significant proportion was directly or indirectly connected to the land. As the number of people employed in land-based roles has fallen over the past 50 years, the total population has risen by over 10 million, reducing further the proportion with a direct connection to the countryside. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the population has become generationally distanced from the land. Fewer and fewer families have a memory of a parent or grand parent from a rural background.


There are many reasons proposed for the changes in public attitudes towards farming, animal welfare and the countryside from prejudiced television presenters, to social media, to a lack of education. Fundamentally, however, shifting attitudes are the inevitable result of demographic and cultural change as an ever-decreasing proportion of the population has roots in the countryside. People who never have to make hard choices about culling wildlife to protect biodiversity, decide how long the useful and happy life of domestic animals can be extended or watch the conflict between food production and nature, see the world through a different prism to those of us who do.


In the 1970s, when Ian started hunting hounds in Oxfordshire and Herbert Starmer recorded his memories of his childhood and his father’s work as a gamekeeper in rural Kent, those counties were largely rural and many, if not most, of the population had direct links to the land. Fifty years later the opposite is true – most people do not have that connection and their attitudes reflect that.  


As much as it would be nice to think that we could return to the more practical reality of a previous age, that is not going to happen. The Alliance will continue to do everything it can to educate and inform about the issues we campaign on, but we also need to look at all rural activities and ensure that, as much as is reasonably possible, we continue to adapt to retain the social licence that is so critical to the future of wildlife management, livestock farming and other animal-based activities in particular.


I do not believe that wherever we live or whatever our background, the differences between town and country are that great. Nearly all of us love the countryside and care deeply about animal welfare. Ian Farquhar’s conversations with Jim Barrington, then Director of the League Against Cruel Sports, and the understanding that they shared a love of wildlife was instrumental in bringing Jim over to his eventual role as our Animal Welfare Consultant. If that divide could be bridged then surely any differences can be resolved.

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