Post-pandemic love of the countryside boosts Northumberland business

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A Northumberland business is thriving on a post-Covid love of the great outdoors.

Shepherds Walks, which provides walking-related products and services, is benefiting from increased consumer interest in health and well-being.

While the firm has been running since 1999, the pandemic was a defining period, not just with the opening of new markets but in enabling owner Jon Monks to re-evaluate the business.

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“Covid completely changed our business,” said Jon. “During the pandemic great numbers of people - many for the first time - went walking in the countryside, often to ease the stresses and strains of everyday life, and that trend has continued.

Jon Monks, front, of Shepherds Walks, with a group on a walking holiday.Jon Monks, front, of Shepherds Walks, with a group on a walking holiday.
Jon Monks, front, of Shepherds Walks, with a group on a walking holiday.

“Our customer profile has gone from older traditional ramblers who were well prepared to venture into the hills to a lot more younger people who see exercise as a hobby and part of their lifestyle.”

Jon’s business, which employs six people full-time from its base in Rothbury, has seen a rise in popularity of walking holidays and endurance challenges in recent times.

The area which has had the most growth is the purchase of GPS units and training. That part of Shepherds Walks had a turnover of £1million in the last year, growing ten-fold in the last decade.

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Jon said: "The health and well-being benefits for people of enjoying the great outdoors has been a massive opportunity for our business, coupled with advances in technology to give less experienced walkers a helping hand.”

However, while new opportunities for growth are being grasped, a new survey from the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) reveals that long-standing challenges such as affordable housing, transport and broadband capacity are hampering take-up.

Almost half of rural firms in the North East, South West and West Midlands see opportunities for providing products or services relating to health and well-being and the environment as consumer priorities and interests change post-pandemic.

But deep-rooted issues in rural areas threaten firms’ ability to grasp opportunities with 40% citing a lack of availability of affordable housing locally, compared to a third of urban firms, and 39% a lack of transport services/infrastructure, compared to 26% of urban firms.

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A third of rural firms also identified inadequate broadband capacity, compared to a quarter of urban businesses. The most common constraint for both rural and urban firms was staff recruitment and retention (50%).

NICRE’s State of Rural Enterprise Report calls for continued improvements in infrastructure in rural areas.

Dr Panagiotis Kyriakopoulos, NICRE Research Fellow, at the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC), which led the report, said: “Our results suggest a widespread perception among rural firms of the opportunities for business growth fuelled by post-pandemic concerns around mental health and well-being and the climate crisis.

"While rural and urban businesses face similar constraints in realising these opportunities, not least with staffing, our findings demonstrate that rural challenges such as insufficient affordable housing, transport links and connectivity are hampering businesses more in rural areas.”

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Around 80% of rural firms which felt they are ‘well placed’ to grasp opportunities are planning either to increase or maintain investment in environmental improvements.

Dr Kyriakopoulos added: “Despite the financial legacy of the pandemic and cost-of-doing- business crisis, our results emphasise many rural firms’ willingness to invest to realise these opportunities. Moreover, these investments in training and employee well-being may be particularly important given widespread concern among rural businesses about their ability to recruit and retain staff.”

The report has been welcomed by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Rural England Community Interest Company (CIC).

Tina McKenzie, policy chair at the FSB, said: “As this report outlines - much in line with our previous research - all too often these firms are held back by challenges like poor transport networks and inadequate digital connectivity.

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“It’s vital that improvements are made in these areas to help rural small firms flourish. A business should not be on the back foot, just because of its location.”

Graham Biggs, chair of directors of Rural England CIC, added: “Government should put in place urgent positive actions to address these issues so that rural areas can play their full part in growing the national economy.”

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