Rural areas in Europe have increasingly become cast as places of nature, and so consideration of sustainable rural development is preoccupied with the management and protection of environmental and natural resources. Yet rural areas are also places of business, commerce and living. This paper examines the character and treatment of rural economies in England over the past decade. It sets out some of the challenges for the socio-economic development of rural areas, and explains how concerns about sustainable rural economies have come to be eclipsed within central government by those of ‘greening farming’ on the one hand and urban policy on the other. The paper concludes by discussing how the role of rural areas and rural economies might be creatively rethought in the context of regional and sub-regional territorial development strategies.