The last ever Royal Show got under way in heavy rain at Warwickshire’s Stoneleigh Park as plans were unveiled to make sure the showground maintains its long association with farming.
Thousands of farmers, country folk and beasts of every size were at the first of four days of celebrating rural life yesterday.
Thursday will bring 160 years of tradition to an end when the historic event closes for the final time.
Organisers and exhibitors spoke of their sadness that the show had not managed to move with the times and attract the visitor numbers of its rivals.
About 100,000 are expected this year, down from 142,000 in 2006.
Plans to ensure that Stoneleigh remains the spiritual home of farming in the UK were unveiled by the Royal Agricultural Society of England (Rase).
They include developing a Centre for Farming Excellence to help recruit talent to the industry, maintaining a two-day pedigree cattle show and building a link road to the site from the A46.
Rase head of communications, Denis Chamberlain, said the failure to lure the public and lucrative partners meant the show has to be subsidised by £200,000 each year.
“It was the hardest decision we have ever had to take but we couldn’t go on doing something which is leaving a black hole in the society’s finances,” he said.
“We had to look at whether that money could be spent in better ways to further the aims of the society.”
Mr Chamberlain said the decision had been taken by a new management team which had taken over at Rase over the last two-and-a-half years, including new chief executive Brian Warren.
He acknowledged the show had not capitalised on opportunities to attract technical exhibitors that have proved a draw for farmers at other shows.
“There have been challenges that we haven’t risen to over the years,” he added.
“Maybe we should have made changes to the way the show was presented but that is in the past now.
“The 250 acres of land we own here is the jewel in our crown and we are excited at the possibilities that are created by working in a new direction.”
Only last year, organisers had promised that the future of the show was not in doubt and had promised to focus on climate change.
Exhibitors setting up at the first morning of the show accused management of greed and commercialisation after a series of bad decisions that had alienated farmers without increasing public ticket revenues.
The loss of the Royal Show is the second blow this year for Stoneleigh Park after it was announced that the Dairy Event and Livestock Show will move from the park to Birmingham’s NEC from next year.
Terry Mance, who breeds Red Poll Cattle, at his farm in moorland Staffordshire, said: “They’ve just gone in the wrong direction and lost their connection with the agricultural side of things.
“It used to be that if you wanted to look at a new tractor, you would come to the show, but they don’t have enough of that sort of thing any more.
“They’ve tried to go for family entertainment but the families don’t come back after they’ve seen it once.”
Mr Mance said the end of the Royal Show would make it less attractive for farmers to rear rare or minority cattle such as the Red Poll, which number just 2,500 in the UK. “You don’t make any money from it,” said the 53-year-old. “But it does put you in front of the public and other potential breeders.”
It was announced yesterday that Rase is hopeful of establishing a pedigree breeding event at Stoneleigh from next year, which will continue to award the cups that are currently handed out at the Royal Show.
An equine event dubbed Royal Festival of the Horse is also expected to begin next year.
But 23-year-old Thea Woollatt, who breeds longhorn cattle in Oxfordshire, said the end of the show would mean that the new competitions did not carry the same prestige.
“It’s very sad that it’s all finishing but that’s life,” she said. “The Royal Show carried a lot of prestige and makes it easier to sell animals. It won’t be the end for breeds like these because another competition will replace it but it’s a shame to not have that tradition any more.”
Planning permission has been granted for a technical centre and it is hoped that breeding associations and the National Farmers Union will keep their presence at the site.
Kathleen Pile, who has been breeding Tamworth pigs at her home in Southam, Warwickshire, for 25 years, said: “I can’t believe that they’re not making money right here in the middle of the country, but other shows are.
“I don’t think charging people £18 for entry has helped. They have got greedy. They’ve got fantastic facilities here and I would like to think that the show continues in some form.”
The show runs until Thursday.