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There are many ways to see the countryside

by Sarah Mukherjee | Shared x 0

It's very difficult not to start humming "Fog on the Tyne, it's all mine, all mine" when there is actual fog on the actual Tyne, and you are admiring the view, whilst walking over a bridge on your way to an event on the Gateshead side of the river. I couldn't linger to finish the song, however; the final Rural Economy and Land Use conference was about to start.

This research programme, also known as Relu, started in 2003, aimed at bringing people together from different academic disciplines, to try to find answers to some of the social, economic, environmental and technological challenges facing the countryside. Non-academics might think that this is a fairly easy process, involving a room, a table and some chairs, and possibly some coffee; however, as some of the researchers involved somewhat ruefully pointed out, it's not quite that easy. Take the word 'model', which proved to be a stumbling block for one particular project. For the social scientists, a model was concept; for the natural scientists, it was a research tool to be filled with data. Each discipline had to learn each other's way of working to get results.

The first debate of the day was on the topic of which should take precedence: food security or the environment? The speakers on either side were succinct and provocative; the points from the audience numerous, covering food waste, forestry, biodiversity, and even whether the question itself was appropriate - shouldn't we be looking for a balance between the two, making abstention in the final vote the only option? Despite the speakers' best efforts, the abstentions won it.

During the coffee break, the conversations reflected the many people and subject specialists the programme has brought together. There was speculation as to whether the CAP reform currently taking place at EU level was a rehearsal for the real change that would be attempted next time around - a theory that has, it must be said, been aired during several previous CAP negotiations. Some people talked about the lack of rain, and how localised the dry weather has been in parts of the country.

Water companies have been involved over the years in several Relu projects; indeed, some people in the industry credit the programme with providing a forum that has helped those involved to form their approaches to catchment management. The Relu programme managers very much hope that the extensive network that they have developed will continue in some form.

As I travelled back on the train, the Angel of the North emerged from gently rolling hills to wish me farewell. Examples of the many jobs we ask our countryside to do - water management, employment and food provision among them - flashed by. It would certainly seem that managing those demands in the face of climate change and population growth will need everyone to work together.

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