5 July 2002

Clouds hover but sun arrives for the Queen

The first Royal Show for two years got off to a subdued start at Stoneleigh,

Warwickshire, this week. Uncertainty over the future direction of British agriculture in

the aftermath of foot-and-mouth, renewed doubts about the direction of CAP reform and

the UK governments commitment to the farming industry combined to take the shine

off Britains premier outdoor showcase. Our comprehensive event coverage begins here

and continues in the Business, Livestock, Arable and Machinery Sections

By Johann Tasker

PERHAPS it always was going to be a strange four days. After last years disaster, organisers of the Royal Show – Britains premier outdoor farming event – faced a difficult task: how to promote a future for farming when nobody is sure what the future holds.

Many visitors felt an air of trepidation hanging over the Stoneleigh showground and it refused to go away. At 79,000, crowd numbers were down by 7000 over the first two days – more than 8%. Hopefully, those who arrived expecting to see the future unfold before their eyes left again a little wiser.

Even DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett was noncommittal, despite a barrage of questions about imminent announcements on CAP reform, modulation, and funding the Curry Commission proposals. "There are a million rumours flying around and we only have a few days to wait," she said.

Sheep were noticeable by their absence – banned until the third day because of foot-and-mouth fears, even though the last case of the disease was more than nine months ago. But at least some livestock farmers put aside their woes and drank sangria at a party on Tuesday evening as organisers finally let the animals into the show.

Miah Lewis, field officer for the Welsh Mule Sheep Breeders Association, said: "During the first two days the show was like a pub with no beer. The general public were asking why there were no sheep and what was wrong with them. The image we were putting across was disastrous."

Overcast skies cleared and the sun came out on Wednesday afternoon just in time for the arrival of the Queen as part of her Golden Jubilee Tour – the first time she has attended the event since her Silver Jubilee in 1977. After touring the showground, she presented trophies for the best pair of dairy and beef cattle.

But the Royal Agricultural Society of England faces a dilemma. It insists that farming must remain at the heart of the show. But the drop in visitor numbers and fewer exhibitors means income from the event is falling. As more people leave farming, facing up to the challenge of drawing in extra crowds becomes ever more pressing.

Organisers are keen to show how the farming industry fits in with the rest of the rural economy. Yet a few cynical smiles greeted exhibits such as the Towards Tomorrows Countryside area. Some farmers seemed perplexed that it included tourist-driven features like a steam locomotive and narrowboat rather than a shiny tractor.

It has been suggested that the show should be moved to bring in weekend visitors with a Grand Parade of prize-winning livestock on a Sunday. Or that the event should be merged with the Town and Country Show later in the year. But organisers say exhibitors are opposed to both ideas, fearing that they would drive away farmers.

But RASE spokeswoman Jayne Spence said: "The Town and Country is a different show altogether. Its pure entertainment and attracts older visitors. But the Royal is all about farming and rural businesses which would not sit well with children and families." &#42