Snow piles up money worries

The effects of early severe weather will be felt for the rest of the winter by farmers. Mark Holdstock reports.

Richard Findlay farms in one of the most beautiful parts of the North York Moors, at Westerdale in the heart of the National Park. It's a wonderful spot to bring up a young family and farm 400 sheep, but conditions are difficult at the moment with almost a foot of snow on the ground.

"We've got as much as we had last year, and we're feeding the sheep now on what is a full winter ration, ad-lib hay (where the feed is left for the animals to help themselves from a ring feeder) and we'd hoped not to start that until the end of January really. This summer was very dry, and while there wasn't quite as much grass to cut, the hay was exceptional quality, what I call 'rocket fuel'. We wanted to save it to the end of January.

"We've had snow in the past in November, but it's been here one day and gone the next," he says. "It just makes for a long expensive winter." Richard is also using high-energy blocks and sugar beet blocks.

Across Yorkshire, conditions have been appalling. Martin Burtt, who runs a dairy farm two miles beyond Glaisdale, says: "We're lucky that we had the heavy machinery to get the stuff out of the way, but we have of course got the tanker to come in and out every other day, and on top of that there are bulk cake wagons that have to deliver cake onto farms." His cows are inside but he's having to use extra feed to maintain his milk yield.

Stephen Wyrill, the national vice chairman of for the Tenant Farmers Association, who farms near Catterick, said: "The compounders are having to put feed prices up on the back of grain prices, and the protein prices are up and down, and all over the place. Quite a few farmers now are turning to the feed suppliers and saying, 'if you're not doing a better deal than that, we're just not buying'."

Most lowland farms would have let their tups do their job, getting the ewes into lamb, well before the snow arrived.

But for hill farms the tupping usually happens at the end of November and the beginning of December.

As Richard Findlay has found out, the snow appears to be cooling the ardour of the sheep.

"Usually the tups are going mad, and the ewes come into season almost at once, but I don't think the rams are working as hard as they usually are. The ewes won't be coming into

season because nutritionally they'll be switching off rather than switching on to romance.

"It will probably make for a lighter lambing crop and a more protracted lambing season."

Nutrition, and the part it plays in getting the ewes into lamb, is one reason why so many hill farmers are using their best feed now, rather than saving it until the

spring. "We must keep the sheep on a rising plane of nutrition, so the embryos implant," adds Richard.

"Gelt (barren) ewes mean no productivity."

Price of hay pushed up

"When the snow is as deep as this it's practically impossible to feed sheep nuts, or sheep cobs," says Brian Healey the feed sale sales manager at Farmway.

"There's a shortage of hay, and haylage and silage everywhere," says Brian Peacock, who sells animal feed from his farm at Knayton, near Thirsk.

"Weather as bad as this is inevitably going to push the price up.

"Before we had this cold spell, hay had already started going up and the price now is 130-140 a tonne delivered." That is an increase of at least 25 per cent on last year.

But winter's onslaught good news for grouse moors

The grouse shooting season, which began on the Glorious 12th of August, ended yesterday and was hailed as being especially good for moors which had been struggling.

"I think the interesting result is how successful the southern dales have been," says Edward Bromet, the chairman of the Moorland Association.

"It's mostly due to a period of mild wet winters. Before last year there was very little snow and for the seven years before 2008 there hadn't been any, which is actually bad news for the grouse.

"The ideal is very hard frost with some snow. In a way it's been a perfect storm because we had one of the hardest winters on record last year, this was then followed by a warm and fairly dry hatching season.

"The winter will have cleared out a lot of older birds which are the ones which don't breed well and get in the way of the young breeding. They would have ended up dying naturally in the cold and the cold will have kept the Strongyle worm at bay so that the younger grouse go into the breeding season fit and well.

"Overall it's been a good year which is a tremendous benefit to the local economy."

Christine Clarkson knows that. She runs a bed and breakfast, Bond Croft, near Embsay on the Bolton Abbey estate in Wharfedale. "We've had a good year" she says. "The more grouse there are the more bookings I get. I mainly get the people who come with the gun-dogs who are doing the picking up and the loaders."

This year she had 20 shooting days, double last year's number.

A good grouse year has other benefits. Many of the birds shot in Yorkshire end up passing through the hands of Richard Townsend who runs Yorkshire Game at Brompton- on-Swale.

He despatches the birds to some of the country's top restaurants and chefs. "It's been fantastic, a good season," he says.

He adds that one of the consequences of a plentiful supply of birds is that the price comes down and more people get the chance to

try it.

The younger birds are sold entirely to the British market and the older birds, which have already bred, go to Scandinavia and to other countries where, traditionally, the birds are slow-cooked to remove toughness.

"We're a very seasonal business," says Richard. "We lose money hand over fist in the summer and we rely on making money during the winter.

"Grouse extend that season because they're the first species to come into season. They give us a month's extra trading each year."

Edward Bromet sees a silver lining for grouse moor owners in the early snow clouds. "If we get another good hard winter there's no reason why next year shouldn't be good too."

CW 11/12/10