Historic and contemporary importance of agricultural and county shows

There is a long history of holding agricultural and county shows across Great Britain. Traditionally, an agricultural show houses displays, exhibitions and competitions relating to agriculture, forestry, and horticulture. These events have been significant community and economic events for rural communities, in some cases for hundreds of years. Often shows moved around but, as the events became larger from the mid-19th century onwards, agricultural associations often bought permanent locations.

County and agricultural shows of all sizes remain important for contemporary rural Britain. Dozens of shows are held each year, mainly in the spring and summer, adding up to around 400 days of events according to the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations. The shows generating some of the largest visitor numbers are, in England the Great Yorkshire Show, the Royal Welsh Show and the Royal Highland Show in Scotland. 

Economic and social benefits

Annual shows bring value beyond their local communities, by promoting rural tourism and bringing in visitors from outside the region and from abroad. The Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations (ASAO, a UK membership body representing agricultural, horticultural, equine and countryside event organisers), estimates that approximately 10% of the population of the UK (7 million people) attend agricultural shows on an annual basis (pdf). The farming and food production sector consider the events to be valuable opportunities to promote their industries and produce, and to exchange knowledge with each other.

Studies have identified the economic benefits of key shows. As well as generating income within the shows themselves, the wider area benefits from holding an event. For example, research commissioned by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA) and undertaken by the University of East Anglia found that the Royal Norfolk Show generated £20 million for Norfolk, including £14.3 million for Norwich businesses. Spend in the showground itself was £2 million. An extra visitor staying overnight from outside the county is estimated to be worth £519.23, while a day-trip showgoer could be worth £335.66 to the Norfolk economy.

Tourism promotion bodies and local authorities recognise the value of the events as showcases to promote local regions. For example, Welcome to Yorkshire’s (formerly the Yorkshire Tourist Board) evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into Rural Tourism in England said that:

Throughout the year Welcome to Yorkshire attend many events to showcase the brand and the products. [..]The Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, the largest agricultural show in the UK is a key event in the calendar where Welcome to Yorkshire have one of the largest stands which allows WTY to invite member businesses to join us to promote Yorkshire.[1]

Cultural importance

Shows can also bring cultural benefits that enrich local communities and build cohesion. This can include reconnecting an urban population with rural areas and helping build an understanding of food and farming.

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said during a speech at the 2022 Royal Highland Show that it was a place which showcases to audiences who “might not otherwise think very much about these things, the quality, the variety and the importance of Scottish agriculture and of the Scottish food and drink industry”.

As the shows have done for many generations of rural people, the shows also provide the opportunity for local communities to meet. The Royal Highland Show blog says that:

For 4 days of the year, the Royal Highland Show helps people combat the challenges of rural living by offering community, support and friendship. It provides the opportunity to re-engage with friends and acquaintances, something which we all need more than ever after the last few years. The Show provides a platform for both rural and urban communities to come together and experience the best our country has to offer.[2]

Challenges for shows

Animal welfare

Some people have reservations about the impacts of show culture on animal welfare. The British Veterinary Association supports shows in that they “present farm livestock at its best and boost public awareness of farming and conservation”. However, since 2012 the BVA’s Ethics and Welfare Group has had concerns about the welfare of animals at livestock shows and what it considers to be “questionable practices used to enhance certain features of animals, particularly cattle”. It has published guidance on best animal welfare practice for owners to use when preparing to show their animals.

There is specific legislation governing the welfare of animals at shows and markets.[3]  GOV.UK guidance Livestock at farm shows and markets: welfare regulations notes that:

The Animal Welfare Act (2006) specifies that owners and keepers – including persons with temporary responsibility such as market operators – have a duty of care to ensure animals are protected at all times. Animals must have a suitable environment and diet, and be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns. Animals must be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease, and be housed according to their specific needs. This basic duty of care applies in all situations, including while at market and shows.[4]

Economic challenges

Many shows have faced economic challenges in recent years. The Royal Show, after 160 shows starting in 1839, held its last show in 2009. Organisers cited the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, poor weather and flooding in 2007, and the arrival of bluetongue into the UK as some of the reasons that the show had become “economically unviable”.

Across the country, the foot and mouth outbreak forced the closure of many events in 2001 and the Covid-19 pandemic prevented many shows from going ahead in 2020 and 2021. This year has broadly seen a return to business as usual. As the Royal Norfolk Show Association says, 2022 shows have gone ahead continuing the “important work of promoting food, farming and the countryside”.  However, the Surrey County Show 2022 was cancelled with discussion ongoing about future years’ events.

Governments internationally, for example in Australia and Ireland, have funded agricultural fairs as part of recovery plans from the Covid-19 pandemic. In England, the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association received a grant of £475,000 from the Covid 19 Culture Recovery fund, part of which funded preparation for the 2022 Royal Norfolk Show.   The Royal Welsh Agricultural Society administered the Agricultural Shows Innovation Fund under which the Welsh Government provided £25,000 in 2021 to help agricultural shows find innovative solutions to their challenges after the pandemic.

Future opportunities

Many shows remain first and foremost an agricultural event, with nearly 8,000 competitive livestock entries to the Royal Welsh Show in 2018 for example. However, the shows have mass appeal: research found that 39% of Royal Welsh Show visitors have no connection with agriculture industry. Building on the traditional elements of livestock competitions and agricultural displays, modern shows now encompass a huge range of countryside, sporting and leisure activities as well as providing extensive retail and catering options to attract a wide range of people.

Shows are developing new ways to engage with potential visitors. Organisers are reported to be keen to promote their shows through E-tickets, social media and broader family attractions. They see agricultural shows as the optimal way of educating the wider public about country life. In 2020, in the absence of the Royal Highland Show during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Scottish Rural College (SRUC) hosted the UK’s first online agricultural show.

The shows can also drive innovation. For example, the Royal Highland Show runs Technical Innovation Awards and fosters “the sharing of new ideas and best practice”.

Further information

Academic studies

University of East Anglia, Analysing The Economic Impact of The Royal Norfolk Show 2018

Greg Philip Thomas Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Agricultural Shows: Shaping the Rural A Case Study of the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show

Philip Crowther, Caroline Westwood, Thomas Langridge, Sheffield Hallam University, The Royal Welsh Show: the nation’s true cauldron [pdf]

County Shows: weblinks

Many of the larger counties hold their own shows including:

Dorset, New Forest & Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Royal Lancashire, Royal Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, SuffolkSurrey, Royal County of Berkshire Show, Royal Cheshire Show,  Royal Cornwall Agricultural show, Devon County Show, Kent County Show, Westmorland County ShowGreat Yorkshire Show 

Some counties hold shows as a group, including:

The Three Counties Show (Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire), The East of England Show (Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire), the Royal Welsh Show, the Royal Highland Show, the South of England Show (Sussex), The Royal Bath and West Show (Somerset and Wiltshire)

[1]     Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inquiry into Rural Tourism in England, Session 2014-15,  Written evidence submitted by Welcome to Yorkshire (RUT0290)

[2]     Royal Highland Show blog, The History of the Royal Highland Show (accessed 19 July 2022)

[3]     This includes the Welfare of Animals at Markets Order 1990 (as amended 1993) and the Welfare of Horses at Markets (and Other Places of Sale) Order 1990. The welfare of animals (Transport) (England) Order 2006 and The Welfare of Animals (Transport) (Wales) Order 2007 also applies where animals are transported to and from the venue.

[4]     Gov.uk webpages on Livestock at farm shows and markets: welfare regulations (accessed 19 July 2022)

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