The coronavirus pandemic is having a significant impact on all of us, economic and social. Whilst those us who live in the countryside may have more access to open space and exercise, the rural economy is subject to the same constrictions as that of our towns and cities.
Country sports, for example, provide substantial income to the rural economy and form the social focus of many rural communities. The economic impact will be far-reaching and may take a long time to recoup. The hunting season may be over but this is the height of the point-to-point season, all cancelled.
On Easter Monday crowds flock to Lockinge for the Old Berks Hunt point-to-point, as they do to others across the country. At this time of year, it is somewhat dependent upon the weather; one year there was horizontal snow and the gate was understandably reduced. Other years have been warm and sunny and a huge number of people enjoy the stunning downland landscape and the party atmosphere. Many hunts are dependent on a good income from their point-to-points to cover their overhead costs through to next season.
Then there are the social gatherings, all part of the income stream. The Game Fair, normally held over the last weekend in July, has already been put back to September and there must be a doubt whether it will take place then. Numerous agricultural shows have been cancelled whilst many villages rely on their summer fetes to raise money for the church or other community projects.
Once the shooting season finished on 1st February, planning starts for the following year. Most commercial shoots hope for repeat business thus filling the slots for next season. They ask for a deposit with the order to create cash flow. They can then order the poults from a game farm to be delivered in July or August, again with a deposit.
The problem this year, of course, is that there is a serious risk of next season not happening or, at least not starting on time. This applies particularly to the grouse season that opens on the Glorious Twelfth of August. Not that grouse are reared and released, but populations need managing and too many birds as a result of no shooting leads to an increase in the disease pressure.
Understandably, some guns are reluctant to pay a non-refundable deposit when there is no guarantee that their shoots will take place. That leaves the shoot with a difficult decision of how many poults to order. Anecdotal evidence suggests that orders are down by perhaps 50%. That turns the pressure onto the game farm, how many eggs should they incubate to produce chicks? It may be that the restrictions are relaxed by August when there could be a huge late demand for poults.
I spoke to one local game farm that is cutting back production this year. One resultant problem is what to do with the spare eggs? In a normal season, they could be sold to local pubs and restaurants, into the catering trade. But with a combination of closed pubs and restaurants and a bigger surplus, that is unlikely to happen.
The other issue is labour. This particular game farm has five Poles working year round but takes on another six or seven for the season. In the current circumstances, they will not be coming, another reason why production has been scaled back.
This shortage of labour reverberates throughout the food chain. The asparagus season is upon us and yet there is a serious shortage of pickers. A report in the Sunday Times highlighted Andrew Brice, a farmer in Kent who grows fifty acres of asparagus. Without skilled pickers, usually coming from Bulgaria and Romania, he may have to leave the crop to rot in the field. Not only will that lead to a shortage of asparagus, a delicious harbinger of spring and early summer, but will cost him some £900,000 of income.
Next will come soft fruit, strawberries and raspberries, and summer vegetables. There are a total of around 90,000 jobs, some duplicated, in the harvest of fruit and vegetables in the country. The latest estimate is that 80,000 are still unfilled. As reported on this page a fortnight ago, a call went out for a modern day Land Army of British students, those unemployed or on furlough to fill the void. Initially there were 10,000 applicants but, once the Chancellor introduced his measures to help those disadvantaged by the pandemic, takers have dried up.
As long as the restrictions remain in force, it seems unlikely that the situation will improve. In any case, large numbers of pickers staying in bunkhouses may not be the best way to prevent infection despite the fresh air and exercise. Perhaps the cancellation of events such as Wimbledon and Ascot will offset any shortages of strawberries! Imports of fruit and vegetables must also be vulnerable to the lockdown in countries such as Spain, so it seems inevitable that there will be shortages this summer just when we need fresh produce to help us stay healthy.