If anyone had suggested six months ago that by the end of April our economy would be effectively closed down and the majority of the population under house arrest, they would have been accused of being a sandwich short of a picnic. Yet here we are! The pandemic is having a major impact on all our lives, the ripples of which will last months, even years to come. I rely on meeting people, farm walks, conferences and shows for material for this column but very little is happening in that respect.
And yet there will be some positive aspects to come out of all this. Air pollution is at its lowest level for a very long time as greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 30% in this country. This has brought clearer skies and darker nights but levels will rise again as the economy picks up, especially the increase in transport. This experience will inform how we live our lives once the worst of the pandemic is over with a determination to learn how we can make improvements more permanent.
There are more people getting out into the countryside for walks and rides. Sales of bicycles have soared whilst the fresh air and exercise must be having a beneficial effect on general health and well-being. Dogs, mine included, have never been so well exercised. Of course, the glorious weather has played a big part, I hate to think of the consequences on mental health had the torrential rains of late winter continued into spring.
It is remarkable how well we have adjusted to working more from home with virtual meetings held via MS Teams or Zoom. It is highly likely that home working will remain much more common than it was before the outbreak. If there is greater home working there should also be more time for leisure without the daily commute. People living in country towns and villages will be able to continue to enjoy our wonderful landscape and gain a fuller understanding of and appreciation for the natural world.
Fishing has now resumed along with other sports such as golf and tennis. The Town and Manor of Hungerford that has five miles of the river Kennet, for example, sets 1st May as the start of its fishing season and so has only lost around a fortnight. It is hard to think of another sport that is more suited to social distancing.
Shooting has suffered a greater impact. There was a startling article on the GunsOnPegs website recently that used statistics from its annual survey and other sources to estimate the effect of the pandemic. The figures are extrapolated and must therefore be treated with caution. It is estimated that there are 163,500 days of shooting at 12,870 shoots in the UK of which some 35% offer days for sale. Around £540 million is spent by guns buying days each year with far more spent on indirect expenditure such as accommodation and equipment.
Larger shoots exceed the VAT threshold and their days are worth some £212 million giving HM Revenue a tax take of £42 million. It is thought that there may be a reduction of 50% in the number of days sold for the coming season because of the pandemic, which could cause the loss of around £565 million. That is a very significant sum and for some areas, such as Exmoor, could be devastating if it comes after a summer where tourism is curtailed for any length of time.
There have been other negative aspects in the countryside. The greater number of walkers has led to the occasional leaving open of gates and the worrying of lambs by dogs. There are reports of a significant increase in fly-tipping caused by the closure of public tips. One was reported on Countryfile recently where hundreds of used tyres were dumped on the Yattendon Estate. The resident agent, David Slack estimated that it would cost £1,000 to clear up the mess. It is quite iniquitous that landowners have to pay for the illegal and antisocial behaviour of fly-tippers, especially having to pay the landfill tax.
Tourism is critical to many country areas and the season has got off to a very slow start with accommodation, pubs and restaurants closed across the country. Restrictions are now slowly lifting with car parks and some attractions reopening. Some local authorities are still taking a hard line with Dorset, for example, insisting that visitors are not welcome, which seems to be a very short-sighted approach.
There is some suggestion that overseas travel may be possible again in time for summer holidays but it is unlikely that many people will take up the opportunity especially if quarantine regulations are still in force. This gives the opportunity for British resorts and tourist areas to benefit, assuming they are allowed to reopen in time. I imagine that many people may enjoy a few days away from home having been locked down for so long, assuming they still have an income.
The pandemic has brought grief and hardship to many people but it has also brought opportunities. The chance to reflect on our priorities, whether we should adapt our lifestyles, individually, nationally and globally. The option to interact more with nature or to buy more wholesome local food through farm shops or other outlets. We realise how important our interaction is with friends and neighbours, bringing the chance of a more caring society. Many country businesses are going through a hard time, not least farming, and we must hope they can survive and thrive in the future.