The National Farmers’ Union has accused the Government of doing too little to help ease the burden of the hot summer weather on farmers, despite having raised its concerns during emergency talks a month ago.
With British agriculture operating under a regulatory framework set by Brussels, the UK Government has been negotiating with the European Commission for special dispensations that will give farmers greater flexibility to adjust their practices to the impacts of the recent long periods of hot, dry weather.
Whitehall officials insist they are seeking “more useful” rule-breaks than other EU states, yet the country’s farming union is unimpressed with the Government’s progress since it convened a drought summit on August 1.
NFU president Minette Batters and Environment Secretary Michael Gove attended the talks which came as the early summer heat delivered the driest start to a British summer for 57 years.
Livestock farmers in particular have been hit by the conditions, with many having harvested so little grass as hay or silage that their animals are now being fed on fodder supplies that needed to be stashed to get them through the barren winter months.
Ms Batters said governments in Scotland, Wales and parts of continental Europe have introduced measures to help farm businesses overcome the “dire impacts” of drought-like conditions, but that the situation is “very different” for farmers in England.
The union president said: “We are yet to see meaningful assistance to farmers who have to deal with the long-term impacts of the extreme weather.”
The NFU has been urging Mr Gove to prioritise securing a temporary relaxation of rules that otherwise stop farmers from grazing or cutting grass from areas of their land for environmental reasons.
“Without these derogations, farmers face huge uncertainty over whether feed stocks will last the forthcoming winter and what increasing costs they will be facing if they don’t,” Ms Batters said.
The NFU wants extra flexibility on water abstraction licences which limit the amount of water farmers can abstract from water sources to irrigate crops and use as drinking water for livestock.
It also wants help for farmers faced with inflated forage and bedding costs, including greater speed from government agencies in working through their backlog of overdue payments that are still owed to hundreds of farmers.
So far, the Government has eased water abstraction rules so that farmers can trade water allowances. It is considering applications for extra abstractions in emergency situations and has promised not to penalise farmers who report difficulties in meeting the terms of their farm payment agreements. It is also negotiating with the European Commission to allow farmers to sow grass and other herbaceous forage on fallow land designated as Ecological Focus Areas.
Nonetheless, Ms Batters wants Mr Gove to take further action.
“The Secretary of State said he would do ‘whatever it takes in order to make sure farmers can continue to run successful businesses’ after the summit last month. This is Government’s opportunity to show meaningful support for the British farms that have been left so exposed to the extreme weather.”
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), insisted it was taking the industry’s pleas seriously.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We are seeking a far more useful relaxation of EU laws for our farmers than other member states have sought.
“Allowing catch or cover crop grazing would, we expect, have limited benefit for our farmers, given the limited crop types that can be grown under current rules in the areas concerned.”
The spokesperson added: “We expect further news next week on our negotiations with the European Commission to secure a much more beneficial flexibility to increase the availability of fodder resources for livestock.”
WETTER WEATHER HAS NOT HELPED
Hundreds of farmers have responded to a survey by the National Farmers’ Union as it tries to establish how badly the drought-like conditions have affected farm businesses.
More than 600 members of the farming union replied to the survey and 71 per cent said they had suffered a negative impact from the weather.
Some 78 per cent of those who use forage said they expect a shortfall in feed reserves this winter, and of those growing spring crops, 90 per cent said their crops were poorer than expected.
In calling for the Government to assist, NFU president Minette Batters said: “Despite the recent turn in the weather, we still need to see action. A bit of rain does not wash the problems away.”