Each of us has our mental list of pet hates. It can vary, but a gale is always near the top of mine. A gale seems to scramble wits, makes decision-making more difficult, damages buildings or leaves you on tenterhooks as it threatens to, slams doors on unwary fingers, blows dust and straw and grain about at high speed, upsets cattle, and generally makes life hell.
Thinking about it as gales came and went over the weekend, with some heavy rain adding to the fun, I realised – to no surprise – that some of my most miserable farming experiences were gale-driven.
They include harvest-time gales when the slower, smaller combines of a previous generation couldn’t cut nearly fast enough as grain was stripped from standing crops. The carpet of grain on the ground usually looked a worse loss than it actually was, but sometimes not by much.
Damage to buildings could also be severe. The sight of 70 or 80 feet of asbestos guttering on a new shed writhing like a giant snake for some time before taking off into the yard sticks in my mind. Stacks blown over, a corrugated iron roof disappearing, big sliding doors flapping sideways, skylights disintegrating, cattle panicking, branches crashing, just the sheer misery of trying to work when speaking to a fellow worker three feet away was impossible.
And I still have the scar on a finger to remind me of drilling grain in a gale with a malfunctioning drill when I leapt out of the tractor one more time in a fury and left my hand a fraction too long on the door jamb. The gale slammed the door shut, causing one of those minor, but intensely painful, injuries we never think of reporting to the Health and Safety Executive.
Oddly, or perhaps not, my immediate thought on looking at the flattened, bleeding digits, one more badly injured than the others, was relief that I carried a rudimentary first-aid kit in the tractor and thank you Elastoplast. It never got quite as bad as that at the weekend and I reflected several times that it might have been worse, I could have been in Queensland, but there were some miserable spells and minor damage throughout our area. Isn’t nature wonderful?
Some cheer for sheep farmers with wool prices at their highest for about 20 years. That doesn’t make wool a money-spinner, but it does mean that the best fleeces are worth up to £5 and even fleeces from the poorest quality breeds almost cover the £1 or so per sheep cost of shearing.
Wool prices in Britain are usually related to the world situation, such as how much China buys, but the decline in the UK national flock plays some part. When the wool price slump began in about 1990, UK sheep farmers produced more than 50 million kilos of wool. Last year they produced about 30 million.
In those 20 years, because of low prices, there has been some interest in sheep with hair rather than wool, but the main reason for the decline is obviously the decline in the number of sheep. Several million sheep were slaughtered during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 and for all many farmers re-stocked, many didn’t.
The change in the European Union’s farm subsidy payment system in the early 2000s, from per head of livestock or per hectare of crop to a single annual payment, meant that farming for the subsidy by keeping livestock numbers as high as possible was no longer necessary. Some farmers – and who can blame them – realised there were other ways of making a living than looking after sheep. That has been particularly true in the more remote and croft areas of Scotland.
None of this means that sheep will disappear, particularly in traditionally strong areas such as the Borders, Northumberland and Cumbria. There are enough dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts who find sheep farming and shepherding a satisfying way of life in spite of its many frustrations to ensure that sheep will continue to graze and meat and wool be produced. There just won’t be so much of it.
Some news never comes as a surprise. Word from Brussels that change to Europe’s common agricultural policy scheduled to take effect from 1 January, 2014, might be delayed for at least a year comes into that category.
As with world trade talks or attempts to get agreement on the world’s environment, since when did CAP negotiations come anywhere close to following the timetable? That’s right, never, and this time will be no exception. Hardly surprising, when 27 member states are involved.
I was going to add “each trying to get the best deal for their own farmers”, but of course that is not true of the UK, if by “best deal” deal we mean most subsidy. The ambition of successive UK governments has been to shake free of its CAP contributions, reduce or eliminate farm subsidies, and get farmers to rely on the open market.
Whether that is right or wrong is another debate, but 26 other EU members will ensure that it won’t happen in 2014, 2015, or any year you care to estimate beyond that.