WELL done, September. As requested – pleaded for, actually – my favourite month started at the weekend with a cracking two days of sunshine and breeze after the Met Office confirmed that the summer of 2012 to the end of August was the worst for exactly 100 years, which also made it the second worst summer on record.
The bare statistics are appalling enough for the UK as a whole – about 370mm rain compared with the rolling average of 226mm in the summer months, and less than 400 hours of sunshine compared with the average of 504.
But as most of us know, many to their cost, the weather has also been intensely localised and some areas have suffered much more than that – heavier rainfall and even less of the sun that crops depend on to grow and bulk up.
The result has been, as noted last week here and every day by farmers getting close to tipping point, that even when it has been possible to harvest oilseed and grain, the yields and quality have been desperately poor.
Only high prices, generated largely by drought in the US and poor returns from Ukraine crops and their effect on the world market, have prevented 2012 being an absolute disaster. But, the old “up corn, down horn” theory, the increase in price of grain and protein crops – soya prices have risen by about 70 per cent in a year – is bad news for livestock farmers buying feed, particularly pig and poultry producers who rely entirely on grain-based rations.
We’ve also seen that strange form of inverse bragging with farmers competing for the worst harvest award. Instead of claiming high to record yields, farmers have been talking about how low their yields are and how pitiful the quality.
It reminds me of that Monty Python sketch where a group of people are competing for who had the most deprived childhood: “Slept in a cardboard box? You were lucky…” Let’s hope that September continues the way it began and we have other things to talk about.
Such as Kelso ram sale, held annually on the second Friday in September and this year as late as it can on the 14th. Last year, 4,457 rams sold for a total of £2.9million and averaged only a few pence short of £650.
Prospects for this year? A poor harvest has often had a knock-on effect on the confidence of farmers buying rams, but in spite of recent fluctuations in lamb prices and the awful wet weather in which lambs have been slow to grow, the past year has generally been a good one for producers.
At the end of August, lamb prices in Scotland were seven per cent up on the year, although that was mainly because fewer lambs were being sold.
The entry for Kelso this year is 5,549 rams of 15 breeds and crosses with Texel again the most numerous at 1837, followed by Suffolk at 1,576, Bluefaced Leicester at 607 and Charollais at 480. Not forgetting – because their breeders and enthusiasts won’t – breeds such as Beltex, Lleyn and Border Leicester.
It’s always a fascinating day at Kelso, not least a walk round the 13 sale rings that will be operating to see the auctioneers in action and compare the range of styles, from the laconic to the frenetic to the near-apoplectic as each tries to convince farmers selling rams that they are doing their very best to get the price as high as they can.
Not easy when trade is sticky and confidence among buyers low, but I don’t think that will be the case a week tomorrow.
Regardless of prices and prospects for rams and lambs, the spectre of the Schmallenberg virus still hangs over sheep farmers. Although the risk remains marginally lower in the north of England and Scotland than in the south of England closer to the rest of Europe, the virus, carried by midges, that causes abortions and deformities in lambs, was found on late-lambing farms in the UK between mid-April and May.
That indicates that ewes carrying the lambs were infected in late January or early February, so thet midges must have over-wintered successfully which is bad news for sheep and cattle farmers.
The Scottish Government is offering free tests for the Schmallenberg virus on sheep brought in to the country from England, or Europe, to try and stop it becoming a major problem. Blood tests are the only realistic ones because the virus produces few outward symptoms in cattle and none in sheep; the first evidence is an abortion or deformed foetus.
There seems to have been more ragwort about this year than in recent years. Its distinctive yellow colour is fading now, but some grass fields – especially, inevitably, those grazed by horses – are thick with it, as are many verges and various corners, nooks and crannies in the countryside.
A concerted effort to eradicate ragwort would be worthwhile. And, given the number of other things farmers have to worry about, extremely unlikely.