July is best forgotten as far as weather is concerned. There is still a chance it might end well, and organisers of the Border Union show tomorrow and on Saturday at Kelso will be hoping that happens, but the month has mainly been a washout.
Among other things, that has meant a slow start to harvest even in areas much further south, earlier, and generally warmer than the Borders. At the beginning of this week only an estimated three to five per cent of the national oilseed rape crop had been harvested and less than 10 per cent of winter barley.
As expected after a long dry spell in spring followed by the heavy, if spasmodic, rainfall of June and July, yields of both crops have varied dramatically. Some growers in southern England report winter barley yields down by a third on the five-year average.
But most oilseed rape crops are producing higher yields than expected. Let’s hope the same is true in our area when combines get fully under way in the next week or so – weather permitting, of course.
Most of us think we have good memories, especially for things that interest us. But in the day-to-day, year-to-year, hurry-on of making a living, planning ahead while coping with today’s problems, we do forget how much change has taken place.
An occasional factual reminder helps, such as the recent bulletin from Lloyds TSB Scotland economist Professor Donald MacRae, a dedicated collector and sifter of agricultural statistics.
In the first decade of this century, 2000 to 2010, the number of dairy cattle in Scotland fell by 11 per cent, beef cattle by seven per cent, breeding sows by 29 per cent and the ewe flock by 30 per cent.
The number of farming occupiers and spouses – effectively, those running farms – fell by 19 per cent and the number of regular farm staff by 17 per cent. The number of tractors fell by 12 per cent. In real terms, subsidies increased by five per cent. Also in real terms, total income from farming increased by 94 per cent.
That shows, as so often noted in this column, how the irreversible trend towards fewer and bigger continues, Prof MacRae says: “Fewer farmers are producing more from less inputs and simultaneously increasing income while subsidies remain relatively constant.”
He adds what is undoubtedly true and a tribute to the adaptability, perseverance and hard work of those farmers who stay in business: “This is an impressive track record.”
It is also “one that needs to be maintained to meet the growing demand for food from an increasing population while competing with imports and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
As far as farming in the Borders and north Northumberland is concerned, a fall of almost a third in the number of breeding ewes is one of the most significant statistics. The foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 had a lot to do with that as hundreds of thousands of sheep in Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders were slaughtered to try and control the spread of disease and then eradicate it.
After control and eradication had been achieved, at considerable financial and emotional cost, many farmers re-stocked. Others had had enough and didn’t.
Another factor in the decline of the sheep flock was the change in method of payment for European Union subsidies. Instead of being based on the number of sheep and cattle kept and acres of grain and oilseed grown it became a single annual payment based on previous total subsidy and farmers get it if they keep their land in good agricultural and environmental condition.
Given that, perhaps the surprise should be that, particularly in the more wet and remote areas of Scotland such as the northern Highlands, the ewe flock has not fallen by more than it has. And that although there are obviously fewer sheep in the Borders now than a decade ago, so many farmers stick with sheep farming.
Remarkable though it seems, that can only be because they like working with sheep, take pride in it and get satisfaction from it as well as trying to make a profit.
Other statistics showing how much change has taken place in ten years depend less on farming being a way of life, especially in the hills, and more on economics. Part of the “bigger and fewer” trend is the replacement of people by machines, so a drop in the number of farmers and staff at the same time as a drop in the number of tractors might seem to contradict that.
Not so, because the average tractor is now much bigger than 10 years ago at about 150 horsepower and on the big arable farms that average is probably more than 200 horsepower. Big might not necessarily be beautiful, but it gets a lot more work done in a day with fewer people.
If the weather improves in August, you won’t have to travel far in the countryside to see evidence of just how much ground big machinery can cover in a day as the harvest rush gets under way.