Landlines by Halidon

A NICE drop of rain at the weekend certainly freshened up the countryside – eight continuous hours on Saturday for us, and pretty much the same for most parts of the Borders and north Northumberland, with more since.

Almost every other part of Britain got it too over the weekend, particularly good timing for areas such as East Anglia that had been officially designated as drought areas on the Friday.

Funny in a way, but as every crop grower and gardener knows, two or three days of heavy rain won’t offset the problems already deep-seated after one of the driest and warmest springs on record.

Low reservoir and river levels mean that the drought designation – as I noted recently, drought is not a word to use lightly when we think of conditions in some other parts of the world – is not as misplaced as it seems.

As far as water use and conservation are concerned there are serious worries for the future, not only for farmers, but for water companies and governments. When the idea of towing icebergs several thousand miles to provide a water supply for dry or drought-stricken areas is again being considered, it’s time for all of us to think more seriously about how we use what we have.

That applies to farmers and horticultural growers as much, if not more so, as industrial users and households. Thinking back to the hot, dry, years of 1975 and 1976 that most of us of a certain age remember best, irrigation of potato and vegetable crops was not nearly as common as now.

Put another way, irrigation is now standard practice on virtually all potato and higher-value horticultural crops, whereas 35 and 36 years ago potato prices of up to £300 a tonne were offset by the fact that many growers were lucky to harvest 10 tonnes an acre from unirrigated fields.

Compare that with now when I guess less than 40 tonnes an acre is crop failure and irrigation is seen as not only essential to bulk up crops, but also as aid to disease control. Astonishing amounts of water are taken from rivers and streams to produce these higher yields even though the right to do so, and the cost, have been tightened and increased over recent years.

When an area is designated as suffering from drought with priority given to public water supplies, garden and crop irrigation are usually among the first casualties as restrictions are introduced. Whether we believe weather this spring is a consequence of global warming or one of those things that happen occasionally – as in 1975 and 1976 – concern about water supplies and tougher restrictions are likely to increase.

On-farm water storage – think about the millions of gallons that must have run off the roofs of large sheds in the Borders alone last weekend – must be encouraged and more attention paid to how wasteful some irrigation systems are.

Meantime, I’m grateful for all that rain.

Better times, and most of them would say not before time, for sheep farmers as far as wool is concerned with an average price of 102p per kilo for last year’s clip the highest for 25 years, double the 2009 average and treble the 2008 figure.

What that really means, as sheep farmers have been keen to point out, is that wool prices have been on the floor for quarter of a century. At just over £1 per kilo, that makes an average fleece worth £2 or so, while the cost of shearing alone is £1 and more per sheep. With an average price of about 50p per kilo in 2009, farmers weren’t breaking even and for years before that, since 1990, they lost money on wool.

The good news is that the revival in wool prices, driven by millions fewer sheep both in Britain and the other main wool-producing countries such as Australia and New Zealand and rising demand, is likely to continue this year.

As with so many other commodities – coal, minerals, metals – the main increase in demand for wool is from China, now one of the two or three biggest spenders in world trade. The British Wool Marketing Board also claims that the international, generic, Campaign For Wool has played a part in boosting trade and prices.

Added to that, this year will be Love Wool UK, aimed not least at the increasing number of women who have rediscovered knitting as both a hobby and a money-earner.

Whatever the reasons for better wool prices after 25 years in the doldrums, sheep farmers won’t mind. All they hope is that the trend continues.

A fleece that would have been worth much more now than it was when they finally caught and clipped him in 2004 belonged to Shrek, the Merino “rogue” ram who avoided being clipped for six years to that date. The fleece a shearer finally removed on a New Zealand farm in 2004 weighed 27 kilos.

His capture also made Shrek a celebrity fundraiser for charities until he died earlier this month, aged 16. Good on yer, sport.