Countryfile Magazine - - Pocklington Canal - By Mark Rowe

2018 has been a year of ex­cep­tional tem­per­a­tures. The win­ter was long and cold, and reached a crescendo with Storm Emma, the ‘Beast from the East’. Af­ter a brief hot spell in late April, the un­sea­son­ably cold weather re­turned. June and July, in con­trast, were un­usu­ally hot and dry. BBC Coun­try­file Magazine looks at how the nat­u­ral world and the farm­ing in­dus­try have coped FARM­ING LIVE­STOCK

The ex­tended win­ter meant that farms around the UK – from Ex­moor to the Pen­nines and the Scot­tish High­lands – had to keep cat­tle in­doors for over eight months. The sum­mer heat­wave that fol­lowed led to live­stock hav­ing to be re­turned to their sheds to keep cool, where they re­quired ad­di­tional wa­ter to quench their thirst.


Crops, such as wheat and bar­ley, grew slug­gishly in the heat and the Na­tional Farm­ers’ Union (NFU) has warned of a short­age this win­ter. Wa­ter-in­ten­sive crops, such as car­rots, have also been slow to grow. In north­ern Scot­land, farm­ers were forced to buy in hay at sig­nif­i­cant cost as their win­ter stocks ran out. Orkney live­stock farm­ers fa­mously boast that they usu­ally get through win­ter with their own sum­mer har­vest sup­plies; this year was dif­fer­ent.


Many farm­ers were only able to make a third of the win­ter hay and silage they need. In Mo­rayshire, Martin Birse, re­gional chair­man of NFU Scot­land, was un­af­fected by the drought but is stock­pil­ing rather than sell­ing his sur­plus in an­tic­i­pa­tion of high de­mand this win­ter trig­ger­ing high prices. With grass barely grow­ing dur­ing sum­mer, the NFU says many farm­ers had to buy in ad­di­tional feed and straw. As cows lost their ap­petite in the hot weather, milk yields in some ar­eas were down by 20%. How­ever, tra­di­tional farm­ing meth­ods helped some farm­ers, as stone barns and hedgerows were able to pro­vide live­stock with cool and shade.


On the Coun­try­file pro­gramme broadcast on 12 Au­gust, view­ers will have seen Adam Hen­son’s sad­ness at his bar­ley crop – he es­ti­mated a 20% drop in yield due to lack of wa­ter – with a sim­i­lar story for his rape har­vest (although ris­ing prices due to scarcity may help make up the dif­fer­ence). He was also feed­ing win­ter hay and silage to his live­stock as the lack of rain from May to July meant there was lit­tle green grass. Like many farm­ers, he was granted spe­cial per­mis­sion to graze on con­ser­va­tion land ear­lier than nor­mally per­mit­ted.


The hot and dry late spring and sum­mer saw many rivers in Eng­land and Wales record ex­cep­tion­ally low lev­els. In one par­tic­u­larly graphic in­ci­dent, large stretches of the River Teme – on the Here­ford­shire-Shrop­shire border – dried up com­pletely, and the En­vi­ron­ment Agency res­cued hun­dreds of fish from the last re­main­ing pools of wa­ter.

There was a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion on the up­per Ken­net in Wilt­shire and parts of the up­per Wye in mid-Wales. Many smaller streams and trib­u­taries across south­ern Bri­tain were also tem­po­rar­ily lost, caus­ing the death of thou­sands of fish.

The sit­u­a­tion was ex­ac­er­bated as wa­ter com­pa­nies and farm­ers were per­mit­ted to ex­tract more wa­ter from rivers to cope with the drought.

Even where rivers still flowed, many fish suf­fo­cated due to the slug­gish, slower mov­ing wa­ter con­tain­ing less oxy­gen.


A huge drop in num­bers of swifts in spring was noted up and down the coun­try. While habi­tat loss in Africa is thought to be an is­sue, cold weather here meant those swifts that did ar­rive did so later than usual. “Mi­gra­tory species are al­ways go­ing to have a hard time in such cir­cum­stances,” says Jon Traill, liv­ing land­scapes man­ager at York­shire Wildlife Trust. “But this year, many swifts ar­rived here look­ing to stock up on food af­ter their jour­ney and there wasn’t any.” How­ever, the dry weather may have tipped the bal­ance back in favour of the swift. “It was glo­ri­ous and per­fect for swifts and other in­sec­tiv­o­rous birds,” says Paul Stan­cliffe of the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy (BTO). “Many of their young emerged bang on cue.”


“Gen­er­ally speak­ing, hot weather is good for but­ter­flies; they need warmth for ac­tiv­ity,” says Ian Mid­dle­brook of But­ter­fly Con­ser­va­tion. “The prob­lem that some of the sum­mer broods had was that flow­ers be­came des­ic­cated. Some of the rare but­ter­flies may have strug­gled, as they don’t have the range or abil­ity to dis­perse that other species do. We might see the im­pacts of that next year.” The ‘Beast from the East’ may, how­ever, have helped but­ter­flies dur­ing the sum­mer of 2018. “Cold weather stops par­a­sites and mould build­ing up, which helps them,” says Mid­dle­brook. “Species that come out in early spring tend to be more ro­bust, as they are more used to chang­ing weather.”


Blue tits, black­birds and house spar­rows were gear­ing up to breed when the se­vere cold weather of March ar­rived. In­stead of pro­duc­ing off­spring, they were left des­per­ately search­ing for food and wa­ter to sur­vive. “Black­birds have been even fur­ther ham­mered by the re­cent dry weather,” says Stan­cliffe. “The ground be­came rock-hard and so they weren’t able to get at the worms.”


Flow­ers bloomed ear­lier than usual and then quickly wilted and bleached in the heat, which means pol­li­na­tors may have strug­gled to find suf­fi­cient nec­tar through­out the year. Some in­sects were able to dig deeper as marshy ar­eas baked, but as pud­dles and ponds dried up, bees and other in­sects strug­gled to find wa­ter to drink. Many more in­sects than usual turned up in back gar­dens in search of wa­ter from do­mes­tic ponds. “The trou­ble is that ev­ery­thing has been out of sync,” says a spokesper­son for Buglife. “In­sects are at­tuned to syn­chro­nise with their food sup­ply, but in many in­stances that sup­ply has come and gone early this year.”

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