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Church expresses concern for rural life

19 April 2013

The Governing Body, at its meeting in Lampeter, spoke at length about the problems of the Welsh farming community, reports Gavin Drake 

Pioneers: young people from The Lab, an Anglican and Methodist pioneer ministry group in Newport, gave a presentation to the Governing Body about their work developing new forms of church that are "accessible and relevant" to young adults with "little or no church or Christian background" in the Alway, Duffryn, and city-centre areas of the town. From left to right: Abbie Cook, youth work apprentice; Matt Davis, pioneer ministry apprentice; the Revd Justin Groves, who provides ministerial oversight; and James Henley, team leader.

Pioneers: young people from The Lab, an Anglican and Methodist pioneer ministry group in Newport, gave a presentation to the Governing Body about th...

FARMERS in Wales were literally "burying their livelihoods" after they were given permission to bury sheep and lambs killed by the recent blizzards, the Bishop of Swansea & Brecon, the Rt Revd John Davies, told the Governing Body.

In a debate about "Mission and ministry in rural and deep rural areas", Bishop Davies pointed out that 82 per cent of Wales was classified as rural; and 65 per cent was classified as "deep rural".

He said that the recent cold-weather snap was causing numerous problems for farmers: "Lambs on snow-covered uplands are dying because of cold weather; livestock is still having to be fed on winter food with implications for what happens later; and autumn sowing is not possible.

"Lots of things we don't always hear about, yet alone understand; but people's livelihoods are being washed away, frozen away, and simply buried in the earth."

Welsh farmers, he said, were estimating that recent events could cause income to drop by as much as 40 per cent, with one of the outcomes of the stress being "the alarming statistics about suicides in farming industry".

But he said that the Church has a role to play. "Percentage-wise - certainly in the diocese of Swansea & Brecon - church attendance in rural areas is greater than it is in urban areas. The church is still seen as a pretty fundamental and important bit of rural life - particularly when so many other bits of that rural life have disappeared."

Seconding the motion, the Revd Richard Kirlew (Swansea & Brecon), described the "horror story" of lambs being born and dying "in some of the worst spring weather that we have had for many a year.

"The problem is that the snow-covered uplands are still concealing their macabre secrets. It may be many weeks before the gruesome toll is known, or before all carcasses are recovered. The disposal of such large numbers of carcasses is already causing issues. The Welsh government has given permission for them to be buried on farmland because it has proved impossible to dispose of them in a conventional manner."

The problems caused by the severe weather are just the latest in a long list of issues that are causing concern for the farming community. "Last summer saw major problems within the dairy industry. Throughout the UK, three farmers were giving up dairy farming every single day. They were losing money hand over fist. A loss to the industry of this magnitude is just not sustainable. Last summer, bottled water was more expensive than milk."

He gave a "timely reminder" for people "to support our farmers and buy locally produced food. . . If you have eaten today, thank a farmer."

The Revd Peter Brooks (Swansea & Brecon) spoke with "ten years of experience of rural ministry in mid-Wales". He has now moved to the "seemingly affluent Gower", but said that, even there, rural poverty could be found.

"Who'd have thought that in the Mumbles you'd find a food bank? For those who don't know the Mumbles, it is a tourist area; and in terms of house prices, I couldn't even afford a shed."

He said that most rural communities, even market towns, were a 30- to 60-minute drive from where people had to travel for shopping, hospital appointments, and various treatments. "Owning a car isn't a luxury, it is a necessity; but petrol prices are well above the national average."

Mrs Rosamund Crawford (St Asaph) gave an example of the "misunderstanding of the local housing situation" that can have an impact on people in rural communities.

"A local builder bought a field on the edge of a village," she said. "His intention was to build some starter homes to help the younger members of the village remain. The County Council insisted that he build four five-bedroom houses, claiming there was a need for them." Mrs Crawford said that the houses were bought as "second homes for people from across the border".

"As a consequence, the younger people are having to move much further afield, and this will mean that, in due course, there will be small class-sizes at the school, which could lead to the school being closed - a situation that could be repeated all over Wales."

She said that many villages were at increasing risk of isolation during bad weather, and also the churches in the centre of these villages.

"As well as celebrating the great festivals of the Church, it is essential for us to remind all in the countryside that we have the stewardship of the earth given to us by God to celebrate as well."

Services were being added to the church calendar in her parish, she said, "to focus on the ribbons of the seasons". In addition to harvest and rogation, services of thanksgiving for lambing, and blessing of the farms, were being held.

The issue of rural isolation was also highlighted by the Revd Alison Jones (Swansea & Brecon), who pointed out that Rhossili, on the Gower, which had been voted the most beautiful beach in Britain, and the third in Europe, had been cut off 12 times this winter because of flooding or snow. "How isolating can that feel - not only for farmers, but ordinary people, both young and old?"

She hoped that the new Provincial Rural Life group would "speak with people in urban areas about the importance of recognising climate change; and how every little bit that is done to making things better for our environment will help people - even little people in Rhossili."

Sandy Blair (Co-opted), a former member of the Health and Safety Executive, pointed out that the agriculture industry has the highest accident-rate of any industry in Britain, and the highest death-rate by work-related accidents.

"The death rate in Afghanistan was an appalling figure; but you need to recognise that more people died working on British land than died in Afghanistan as British soldiers."

James Turner, chairman of the Representative Body, said: "It is very often not fully appreciated that much of Wales, and parts of the Marches, constitute the leading and most important sheep-rearing region of Europe. The health of the agricultural community totally underpins the health of the rural economy. . .

"Each time you go into a restaurant, or indeed a retail outlet, ask them: 'Where does your food come from?' Recently, I faced a ridiculous situation at a hotel in Cardiff, our capital city, which was serving bottled water from Scotland. I asked them: 'Why don't you serve Welsh water?'

"The more of us who do that, the more we are helping our colleagues in rural communities."

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