Andrew Arbuckle: River of constant change leaves us with stagnant water

There's little between the 1980s and the last year's woes. Picture: Neil Hanna
There's little between the 1980s and the last year's woes. Picture: Neil Hanna
Share this article
Have your say

IN SPEAKING to former NFU president Ian Grant a couple of months ago, he said that all union presidents had to expect to deal with some exceptional weather.

It was par for the course, he indicated, in leading an industry which is largely conducted outdoors.

His experiences in leading the union included two years afflicted by extreme weather. The first of those, in 1985, hit the southern part of the country, and from hay-making time through to potato lifting it was a struggle.

The following year was, in many ways, worse, as it hit the north-east really badly and many farmers were left with unharvested crops.

On the latter occasion, he recalled being summoned to Auchnagatt to explain to the farmers in that area what he was going to do about a situation which he was quoted in the local paper as saying was “an emergency for many farmers, a deep crisis for some whilst for others the situation was simply tragic”.

Now, even union leaders are short on providing divine intervention and the reality was there was no big solution to either catastrophe. But what was done in those years is interesting in comparison to what is possible today.

As I travel around the countryside in the last days of 2012, I do not think I have ever seen it so bedraggled and sorry looking.

Large chunks of the best of land are lying under water; fields are left showing the deep ruts and scars of a difficult harvest, and livestock which can cope better with cold weather are proving they are never happy being constantly drookit.

In the first mid-1980s crisis year, where it was estimated by the year-end the weather had knocked £100 million off farm incomes, the union helped set up a forage scheme which saw thousands of tonnes of hay and straw moved to the livestock areas.

Also in both years some 25 years ago, meetings were set up with Scottish Agricultural College advisers. Although the suggested husbandry changes were not seen immediately, there were changes to farming practices with, for example, a big shift to silage-making in the livestock areas.

There was also a subsequent cutback in the area of wheat grown in Aberdeenshire as this was the crop that was most badly affected by the wet harvest.
So far, so similar, with, for example, the present-day college advisers setting up a meeting next month on how to improve soils that have lain saturated over the past 12 months.

This time around, there is no big incentive for improving land drainage. Then there was still a 25 per cent grant for drainage schemes; a legacy of the days when land improvement and increased production was important.

Now there is only the rural lottery called the Scottish Rural Development Programme and that is unlikely to provide any widespread or meaningful support.

I note in the latest management costings sent out by SAC Consulting that complete drainage schemes now cost around £3,500 per acre so that rules out much being done – even if in some areas it is now sadly needed.

Twenty five years ago, the drainage guru with the college was Ron Speirs and a generation of students would be raised on his enthusiasm for ensuring the land was well drained.

I remember how he enthused over schemes conducted a century earlier where massive amounts of hand labour and primitive equipment had drained large areas of boggy ground and turned it into productive land.

Sadly, that land improving enthusiasm is gone, replaced with a dull acceptance that payments will in future be made for land that has reverted into marsh and bog; to be known under the next Common Agricultural Policy as an environmental focus area (EFA).

Looking over his flooded fields last week, a neighbour dolefully wondered if it would be acceptable to the European Union inspectors if the whole EFA land was permanently under water.

The other present-day problem with maintaining field drainage is the suspicion and downright hostility that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has whenever it sees a mechanical digger hovering in the vicinity of a ditch.

With the threat of losing their single farm payments hanging over them, many farmers have abandoned the regular routine of winter cleaning of their ditches and watercourses. “Too risky,” they say regretfully and even if they cannot see the damage being done they know that silted-up ditches quickly lead to silted-up field drains; this latter damage being irreversible.

Yes there are comparisons with the last sodden years of a quarter of a century ago but the problems of 2012 seem more difficult to resolve.