Britain has been breaking record after record recently. But it’s not the sporting prowess of our national football squads or our dedicated Olympians that I’m talking about. It’s the weather that’s been making the headlines. Already this year we’ve seen the wettest June for more than 100 years and the third warmest March since records began. That came after two consecutive winters that were among the driest in living memory. The weather is a national obsession, of course, but for farmers extreme conditions can be a make or break affair.
This year’s dry spring was wonderful for those of us who were involved in early lambing and calving, because it meant perfect conditions for livestock kept outside, while farmers working indoors were able to turn out newly born lambs on to grass within hours. It wasn’t such good news for arable farmers though. Crops on thin, stony ground, as in the Cotswolds, started to suffer due to the drought conditions. The ground was so dry that my spring barley didn’t get off to a very good start at all, while in other parts of the country some vegetable growers simply weren’t planting because the lack of water made irrigation impossible.
However, almost as soon as the hosepipe bans were introduced, the heavens opened and it still hadn’t stopped raining at the time of writing. It meant that the spring barley recovered and it was a tonic for winter wheat and oilseed rape. But as everyone knows, there are two sides to every story. Once summer had arrived and the rain still hadn’t stopped, it was almost impossible to make hay and silage, which requires warm weather to dry out the grass.
Back on the sheep farms, the shearing gangs have been counting the cost because they haven’t been able to get to work. You simply can’t shear wet sheep because the wool rots easily and the job turns into a dangerous farce if you’re got clippers in your hand while trying to get hold of an animal that’s dripping wet.
I can’t think of a sector of agriculture that hasn’t been affected by the weather so far this year. Even the apple and pear orchards of the Midlands and the West Country haven’t escaped. Blossom time was a headache for the growers because they rely on insects to pollinate the flowers, and bees don’t fly when it’s raining. Instead, they hunker down in their hives and live off the existing nectar. Even those enterprising orchard owners that brought in beekeepers to put hives beneath the fruit trees to help promote a decent crop were worrying about low yields due to the poor pollination.
Farmers try to manage crops and livestock to the best of our ability and we’ve learnt to be robust and adaptable. In recent years, we’ve had to cope with a string of challenges, from fluctuating exchange rates and new farming legislation through to high profile animal diseases such as bluetongue and foot and mouth. I’d say that, on the whole, we can deal with all those problems to a greater or lesser extent. But the weather is completely out of our hands.
It’s difficult to change our farming practices quickly enough to cope with unseasonal droughts or downpours, for the simple reason that crops are grown on an annual basis, and because we never know what the weather’s going to throw at us, we can’t suddenly chop and change. In farming, once you’ve sown the seeds you’ve committed yourself.