Here we are in April with little sign of spring. It is drying up nicely, but it’s so cold and the grass has deteriorated in the last fortnight when at this time of year it should be actively growing.
We have finished injecting slurry at Tillington, and hopefully that will get some growth going as soon as it warms up, but the weather forecasters are predicting a cold April; I can only hope that they are wrong. Compared to other farmers up and down the country we are extremely lucky.
As I have mentioned in the column before, in Wales there is no grass at all, lambs are dying in the cold sleety rain, their mothers short of food, with further losses inevitable.
Farmers are feeding the sheep, but few are prepared for an April with no grass, they just don’t have enough. In the past even if it was snowing the grass would be there, but this year the February and March cold winds have killed off growth and the ground is bare.
Some of the spring calving dairy herds are in dire trouble too, with record amounts of money being paid for silage, hay, round bales and any other feed they can get their hands on. In the West you do not expect to be faced with a situation like this in April, and we have not had this happen for a very long time.
Up north, drifting snow has buried thousands of sheep, and farmers are digging them out the best they can. Sheep are hardy, but they are vulnerable now at lambing time.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have been the worst affected, with sheep stranded and lambing sheds plunged into darkness as power lines snap under the strain and some lambing shed roofs falling in under the weight of snow. It will be some time before the final picture and the costs become clear.
Milk tankers are unable to gain access to dairy farms in some areas, with fuel, feed, hay and straw facing the same difficulties. The task of dealing with all the fallen stock will be considerable, with the National Fallen Stock Company asking 100 firms to submit prices for collection of dead sheep.
Helicopters and tracked vehicles have been deployed to bring some relief to stranded farms. There is no doubt that severe hardship is taking place and financial hardship will follow as sure as night follows day.
Some will be put out of business, others will throw the towel in, as margins have been and are wafer thin or non-existent due to high cost of feed, fuel and fertilizer. Markets have not covered costs and the weather over the last twelve months has pushed those costs much higher in many cases. All farming sectors are under tremendous strain and it will take a long time to recover. Arable farmers planted very few crops last autumn, and are struggling to establish spring crops, many of which are marginal.
I was 9 years old when the appalling winter of 1963 struck. We were stranded in North Wales for weeks as high winds drifted snow 12-15 feet high in places. The sheep gathered along the stone walls for shelter and were buried under the drifts. My father and his brother would have a reasonably accur
ate idea of where they would be and would spend hours with long sticks prodding the deep snow and then digging out sheep found to be underneath. The welsh mountain sheep on our farm are hardy and can survive several days under snow, and if left too long will start eating their wool out of desperation.
After days of digging out sheep, the wind would get up, more snow would fall and they would be buried again. We did lose many sheep that winter, but as I was told at the time, although it was much colder in 1963, far more snow fell in 1947 and many, many more sheep were lost.
During the day we would cut hazel coppice and the sheep would come running as soon as they heard the billhook strike. Hay had to be carefully rationed, as we were completely cut off from the outside world.
We would cut hazel every day for weeks, the sheep eating the buds and stripping off the bark.
When the high wind returned, it would sweep large areas of snow into drifts, exposing grass underneath for the sheep to eat, which had been protected from the frost by snow. In the summer of 1962, a family from Oldham in Lancashire had arrived to live in the farmhouse next door.
They were the first English people I had seen! When the winter arrived, the Land-Rover which they thought would be invincible could not be found one morning, and you could walk out of their bedroom window on to the snow drift.
As you can imagine, having run out of food in a matter of days, they were very frightened and thought the world had come to an end!
My father and Derek Wood would walk to the nearest village seven miles away to get bread and essentials, my mother had also started baking her own bread as one does in times of need.
As children we had a whale of a time in the snow, especially as the drifts became totally frozen and made for amazing bobsleigh runs. School was shut for weeks, and each time the roads were cleared, the winds would fill them up with snow again. It seemed to go on for ever, but normality returned as it always does, but we still talk about 1963 to this day.
I had a journalist on the farm last week who commented that modern farming had been a disaster as far as he could see.
He was fortunate that he did not even have to think when buying his food, but when questioned was reluctant to spend more of his disposable income on food if it meant doing without the many pleasures he and his family enjoyed.
Whilst I am the first to concede that with such amazing progress over 50-60 years, we need to take stock and assess the impact agriculture has on the environment and animal welfare, but to put things into perspective, chicken used to be a rare Sunday treat for most people 60 years ago.
The farming we practiced in North Wales was mainly organic (not that we called it that) apart from drenches and other medicines which saved so many animals, and some fertilizer to nurture new grass leys.
Progress is vital and exciting, but we need to be wary of unintended consequences, but so do the general public and the government. So many farmers I meet, some of them local farmers in this area who feel that no one likes what they do never mind value their work.
I find that shocking and very sad, but I can see why.
A few activists here and there and a couple of awkward individuals in a village (we all have them) do not make for a majority despite their noise.
Cheer up chaps spring will come!