Farmers feel the winds of change

IT doesn't sound like a gripping storyline for a soap but writers for The Archers on Radio 4 are said to be planning to tackle the subject of climate change on the farm.

It's a pressing topic, one that agriculture is now being urged to confront and it was probably only a matter of time before they would do so down Ambridge way.

In England, farmers have been told that by 2020 they need to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases by 11 per cent. That's just one step on the way to achieving the UK's legally binding target of cutting total emissions by 80 per cent within 40 years.

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Everyone from the National Farmers' Union and the Country Land and Business Association to the Agricultural Industries Confederation is sitting down to determine how this might be achieved. Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, farmers are already starting to find out how to reduce their carbon footprints.

They have first-hand experience of weather changes over the last decade. Despite the recent cold spells, the trend is still towards higher temperatures in the region.

Winter rainfall is expected to be as much as 10 to 15 per cent higher by the year 2020 and up to 20 per cent more by the middle of the century. And that is just part of the story, as farmers heard at a special Harrogate conference organised by FWAG – the leading provider of conservation, habitat and environmental advice to farmers in the UK, which is funded by Natural England.

Dr Ian Rotherham of Sheffield Hallam University painted a bleak picture for his audience of how Yorkshire might change in the next few decades. "If the ice sheet melts and it pushes the Gulf Stream south, I'm sure you as farmers will know what the consequences for Britain will be," he said. "We'll actually be plunged into very long, very cold winters. It might be sunny and warm in the rest of Europe but we could end up being very cold.

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"What we do know, and what we see now, is more extremes in the weather. There's a tendency for things to be wetter and warmer. When it rains, it really rains. But at the same time you can get longer, hotter droughts."

If seasons were getting out of cycle, said Dr Rotherham, then growing would be unpredictable. Droughts and floods would also create addition problems of soil erosion.

"Work such as barriers, embankments and better drainage systems cost millions of pounds.

"It has to be done, but it's not a long-term solution. It's a sticking plaster solution. We need to deal with the cause, not the symptom."

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Madeleine Lewis of the advisory service Farming Futures, said that agriculture accounted for seven per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the term "greenhouse gas" usually referred to carbon dioxide produced by carbon fuels and transport, but in agriculture these were not the main problems.

In farming, the offending greenhouse gases were mainly nitrous oxide released from fertilisers and methane from livestock and slurry.

Energy efficiency measures, such as reducing the number of miles travelled by farmers and machinery, will be a small but valuable contribution to achieving the carbon reduction target. More important will be the introduction of efficient methods for cutting other greenhouse gas emissions.

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Many farmers are already reviewing their operations to see what cuts can be made.

David Hugill, who farms at Scugdale in the North York Moors National Park, believes that farmers who become "subsidy junkies" will have to rethink their ways.

He wants farmers to embrace what he calls "holistic farming" in order to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and to repair the damage of climate change.

David believes that low-tech solutions should be applied to the whole farm, rather than just dealing with token ways of reducing carbon footprints. He wants to set up a group of farmers to take part in his "holistic farming" approach.

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But it's not easy for farmers in the upland areas, says Steve Ramsden, who farms and rents out 5,500 acres around Middlesmoor in Upper Nidderdale.

"The plain truth is, if you are asking livestock farmers in upland areas to reduce their carbon footprint then I can't see how it can be done.

"We already have a low input, low output system. We don't farm intensively because we are in uplands, which are environmentally sensitive areas, so we can't radically alter our farming practices."

Steve has made an effort to cut his carbon emissions by paying 20,000 for a six-kilowatt wind turbine. Any electricity he doesn't use on the farm he sells to the National Grid. His determination to make some contribution to the carbon reduction targets has been caused by the evidence of climate change effects on his own land.

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Two wet summers have stopped him being able to make hay. And the long series of milder winters have cut the grouse numbers on his moors.

"So it's now or never, really, isn't it?" he says.

"Each one of us has got to take whatever action we can to reduce our impact. It sounds very dramatic, but if we sit back and do nothing it'll be too late."

Nine fact sheets giving farmers specific advice on a variety of climate change issues are downloadable from www.farming

David Hugill, Raikes Farm, Scugdale, Swainby, North Yorkshire, DL6 3DT.

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