The return – virtually – of this year's Royal Welsh Show was a bittersweet moment for farming in Wales, highlighting the widespread, ongoing impacts of coronavirus on country life while also offering hope for a return to some sense of normality in the future.

Opening the show online, Royal Welsh Agricultural Society council chair David Lewis reflected on the pandemic's consequences for the flagship event but also the wider rural economy.

"Who would have thought that after the cancellation of last year's Royal Welsh Show... that we'd be in a similar position a year later?" he asked in his opening address. "The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the whole events sector, with no festivals or shows – or associated income – for nearly 18 months."

Events such as the Royal Welsh Show mean so much more than the competitions at their heart – they are key events in the social calendar, bringing together people from across Wales and highlighting the best the country has to offer. And in a year-and-a-half where gatherings and social contacts have been discouraged, and often banned, the loss of many of this year's events will have been a cruel blow to show-goers.

"The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt right across the farming community," said Gareth Parry, policy officer at the Farmers' Union of Wales (FUW). "The majority of shows have been cancelled, including the pinnacle event in our diary – the Royal Welsh Show.

"Whilst some events are going ahead as normal or virtually, uncertainty remains [and] the impact on the wider rural community can't be ignored. For many these events are their break from jobs on the farm, a chance to catch up with friends and family, to share thoughts and concerns."

While 2020 wiped out the agricultural show calendar in Wales, this year's situation has allowed some events to go ahead albeit, as Parry said, in very different formats.

The Pembrokeshire County Show will go ahead in Haverfordwest on August 18-19 with the usual livestock competitions, but this year's event has been limited to participants only and there are currently no plans to open the event to members of the public.

Meanwhile, in Ynys Môn, the Anglesey Show will not be taking place this year in its usual format, but organisers have instead prepared a smaller event, called Sioe Bach Môn.

The regular show was "difficult to arrange...due to Covid restrictions" but the new, bite-sized version, taking place on August 10, will still include the usual horse and poultry contests and dog show; as well as a showjumping competition the following day.

MORE NEWS:

The coronavirus situation, worsened by the spread of the Delta variant in the late spring, meant that changes to government restrictions on outside events came too late for most agricultural shows.

On the eve of this year's Royal Welsh, rural affairs minister Lesley Griffiths described farming and agriculture as "the beating heart of rural Wales", adding: "It is, of course, very sad we will not be meeting face-to-face at the show again this year, but public health must come first."

These pandemic-related cancellations delays have been met with regret, but also a sense of inevitability, among the rural community, including John Davies, the president of the National Farmers' Union here in Wales (NFU Cymru).

"Along with the rest of the farming community I am disappointed that many of this year’s agricultural shows won’t be going ahead again this summer due to the pandemic," he said. "Public safety, however, is of course paramount."

The organiser of one show, which will not be going ahead this year, told The National months of uncertainty, and the costs associated with organising these large events, meant committing to an in-person show this summer had been too great a risk. The danger of a last-minute cancellation, due to circumstances outside of the organisers' control, was something that would have been catastrophic financially.

The Welsh Government has moved to mitigate these impacts for the Royal Welsh, announcing last year a £200,000 support package for the Society to reflect "the unprecedented circumstances they have faced".

The financial impacts of cancellations across Wales will have been felt far beyond the organising committees, however. These events are a 'shop window' for many businesses and producers, giving them an opportunity to build connections and meet customers. The setting-up and maintenance of showgrounds is an economy in itself, comprising professionals from plumbers and electricians to accountants and solicitors.

And as NFU Cymru president Davies described it, the loss of many of this year's shows is "a hit financially, but it will also impact the communities they support in many other ways".

Beyond the livestock shows and competitions, these events provide key education opportunities around farming methods and best practice, and are for people outside the rural community an important window into the nature and challenges of Welsh farming.

Just as importantly, the coming together of Wales' rural and farming communities is not just a social gathering but an opportunity to shape political action.

“Agricultural shows also provide the chance for meeting with politicians, stakeholders, retailers and it is also a very important time for us as union to engage with our elected politicians – be that those in Cardiff Bay or Westminster – and gives us an opportunity to continue lobbying on the issues that matter to farmers across the country."

For these reasons, there is a need – as well as a longing – for these events to return to the Welsh calendar.

And as this year's virtual Royal Welsh ended, there was an optimistic note in the closing address given by Society board chair John T Davies, who said: "I hope this will have been the last virtual show, as we look with an air of enthusiasm, with – hopefully – normality returning into our lives."

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.