The TV programme One Man And His Dog has provoked an argument that has united Britain's urban and rural communities. The broadcasting of sheepdog trials might seem unlikely to provoke political debate but the issue has highlighted problems facing those living in the countryside. For the past 23 years the BBC television schedules have included the uniquely rural sporting event which has attracted support from urban armchair shepherds. At its peak in the 1980s One Man And His Dog attracted an audience of 7.8 million. But recent years have seen fewer people prepared to sit in front of their screen and watch while border collies worry and cajole seven sheep across a field. High points such as when the dog brings the flock to a stand or singles one sheep out for the shepherd have apparently lost their fascination. The programme was moved from its prime time evening slot to the scheduling wastelands of Saturday afternoon, where it competes for viewers with other, more popular, sporting events and its audience has fallen to just over a million. But when the BBC announced last week that it was dropping One Man And His Dog newspapers were bombarded with letters from outraged viewers. 'The programme's popularity is well deserved. Not only does it offer an opportunity for our shepherds and dog handlers to demonstrate their skills to the world - it does far more. It gives townspeople a view of the real living and working countryside,' Lord Buxton wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. 'Many of our upland livestock farmers are feeling despair. They feel forgotten, isolated and ignored; the disappearance of One Man And His Dog will worsen that feeling of isolation,' he said in his letter, one of 2,500 the paper said it had received in support of the show. The Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, joined the campaign to save the programme that turned farmyard animals into television stars. 'My personal view is that it is a big mistake on the BBC's part to axe this programme,' Mr Smith said. 'It is a decision which I very much regret. It is a wonderful programme and it is something I have watched with pleasure over the years,' he said. The cabinet minister rejected the idea that the BBC's decision amounted to an 'insult' to the countryside community, but said it had shown thoughtlessness. The Guardian newspaper joined the debate and pointed out the issue drew attention to the increasing problems faced by the 11 million people living in rural areas. 'Some may doubt that televising One Man And His Dog can in practice do much to counter the countryside's gravest problems, its areas of grievous poverty, the collapse of its transport services, the loss of shops and schools which sustain village life,' an editorial in The Guardian said and went on to call for greater help to be offered to those in rural communities. More than one-fifth of England's population live in country areas which, despite the image of offering a rural idyll, provide some of the worst areas of social deprivation in the country. Studies show 25 per cent of the rural population live in or on the margins of poverty. Low wages, under-employment and inadequate housing are everyday realities for large numbers of people. Homelessness is increasing in the countryside, where rural services are in decline and sheep farmers are amongst the worst hit with prices at markets so low that many have to slaughter their flocks. Kevin Evans, deputy director of the Royal Agricultural Society, said many living outside cities were facing such serious problems that the suicide rate in farming communities was twice the national average. 'The situation for many has become increasingly desperate. Farming communities have gone through a series of extremely bad years with falling exports and a lack of local markets. There is a lack of social support and many people are facing financial and other difficulties.' Conditions had become so bad that The Samaritans, who counsel those facing depression, this summer began setting up booths at county fairs which are a traditional meeting place for the agricultural community. 'Suicide is obviously an extreme response to the situation but there is no getting away from the fact that many people are facing increasingly difficult conditions. It is clear that with the decline of the farming industry many people are living in worsening conditions without any support,' Mr Evans said. The Labour Government is not inclined to continue subsidising the farming industry and the National Farmers' Union has warned most farms will soon be out of business. Many people in rural areas are turning their hands to other sectors so that many farmhouses are now being turned into cheap bed-and-breakfast hotels. But work in tourism is notoriously badly paid and offers only seasonal employment, leaving many still living on the poverty line. While the future for those living in the countryside looks bleak there is some hope for those who follow sheepdog trials. Rupert Murdoch's Sky television pay-per-view network has said it is interested in taking on the One Man And His Dog format for a weekly show. But the programme's presenter, Robin Page, has been less than impressed by the offer. 'Where will a livestock farmer in the uplands with an overdraft and a falling income, being driven to despair and worried about his future, get GBP30 [about HK$377] a month to watch a programme he loves?' Mr Page said. Correction: In Kevin Sinclair's column on this page yesterday it was incorrectly stated that Aeroflot had stopped services to Hong Kong. Aeroflot advise that it does not plan to stop its two regular flights a week to Hong Kong.