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Can a royal crusade save British farmers?

Prince Charles steps in to help struggling rural communities.

WESTCOUNTRY, United Kingdom — Rolling hills, mooing cows and the sight of a tractor chugging down a winding, country lane: The English countryside offers a tranquil and culturally rich image.

But the picture is fading and the rural infrastructure that spawned it is under threat.

Enter one very high-profile champion — not quite the gallant white knight, but a real life prince nonetheless.

The problems besetting rural Britain are so dire that on July 22 Prince Charles launched his Prince’s Countryside Fund to save what he has dubbed "one of the greatest treasures of our nation."

The charity intends to provide grants to farmers in times of crisis, such as tuberculosis outbreaks and flooding, and help save the United Kingdom’s local rural culture, landscape and communities.

One of the biggest concerns for the heir to the British throne is the decline of the farming community and the decreasing number of young people entering the industry. The average age of farmers in the U.K. is 59, with 33 percent aged 65 years or older and only 3 percent aged under 35, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

"The important thing is to ensure that rural skills are maintained and young people have a chance to take part in rural businesses," the prince said, speaking earlier this month on the BBC’s Countryfile program.

Stephen Burdge, an organic beef farmer in the Mendips Hills, said, “We are OK in the short term. These old guys will rumble on until they are 70, 80. But in 15 to 20 years there is going to be a severe skills shortage.”

At 28, Burdge is a rarity in the farming community and welcomes the prince’s plans to help young farmers.

“I would support anything like that," Burdge said. "It is fantastic to encourage young people to come into the industry.”

The farming industry is in desperate need of the reinvigoration normally brought by young people entering an industry in the modern era.

In previous generations, farming was predominantly about livestock management. But increasingly a deeper understanding of consumer and administrative finesse is needed.

“They [older farmers] are very staid in their ways," Burdge said. "That is all they know, they won’t open their eyes to other things, like organic or the Stewardship schemes.”

Upon returning from college, Burdge encouraged his father to think about the Stewardships scheme — an initiative where farmers are paid to conserve the countryside.

The National Union of Farmers believes that while the fund demonstrates the importance Prince Charles places on rural communities and farming, “farmers would prefer to derive a proper return from the market rather than rely on charitable handouts.”