Teach kids that food production is no fairytale

I can’t remember if it was a dictator or perhaps a Pope who said “if I can gain the confidence of a child during its formative years it will support what I teach it for the rest of its life” – or words to that effect.

I don’t accept the doctrines either might have taught children, but it’s true that lessons learned and prejudices ingrained at an early age tend to stick – and political and religious leaders know it very well.

I was reminded of this the other day while listening to a Radio 4 programme about a planning dispute over a proposed development near Newbury in Berkshire. The local council wanted to build a thousand houses near the town and some local people were protesting.

Most of the protesters objections, it seemed, were based on the fact that the development area included land that had been described forty years previously by Richard Adams in his book Watership Down, and over which his fictional wild rabbits with names scurried to escape from people. In other words grown men and women were using anthropomorphic arguments based on their juvenile reading to try to stop the development.

Now no-one values beautiful landscapes more than I do and although I am not familiar with the countryside in question I deduced from the programme that building across it will change its nature and ruin the outlook of those who live there. But I found it disconcerting that the interests of farm pests like rabbits, and pretend ones at that, should be invoked to inhibit the bulldozers.

Then again, perhaps the reverse argument might also work. A week or so ago, during school Easter Holidays, I lent a hand at the annual Spring Fling held on the Norfolk Showground. As usual it attracted well over 5,000 children and parents to participate in dozens of entertaining and educational activities – infotainment I think it’s called.

This year I announced a range of countryside displays in a small show ring. One of these was a demonstration by a man who makes his living catching – and dispatching – rabbits using ferrets. To do this he set up a pretend warren in which he hid stuffed rabbits and then sent some of his live ferrets to find them. He kept up a running commentary throughout on the damage rabbits can do to farm crops and the need to control their numbers. He was a natural communicator and the ringside was packed.

Will the messages he included remain with those children? Will they, as they grow up, remember that unrestricted rabbit populations damage to food production? Or will they be influenced more by the writings of Richard Adams, Beatrix Potter and the films of Walt Disney? Time will tell but at least events like the Spring Fling, now in its twelfth year and growing in popularity the longer it continues, are doing something to try to redress the balance.

There were many other, more overt and mainly interactive, attempts to educate both children and parents. Healthy eating featured strongly as did the benefits of home production. The kids lapped up the chance to mount big tractors and combines and at lunchtime all there were treated to a hog roast in a bun so they left with a good taste in their mouths and in addition, let us hope, a better understanding of farming and the countryside.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

Should an area’s literary history play a part in planning decisions? Have your say online.

Read more from all our Opinion writers

See more