Livestock fatalities up after a long hard winter

AWEEK ago, I mused on the less popular jobs in the farming industry. I did not include what must be the most difficult task currently facing sheep farmers: that of coping with the consequences of the worst and most prolonged winter for a long time.

The comment from the National Fallen Stock Company, which is responsible for organising the collection of dead livestock, reveals the seriousness of the situation. “We are very busy keeping up with the increased workload,” it said.

The peak period for casualties in livestock farming has always been around lambing and calving time. The difference this year is the number of deaths brought on by bad weather is adding to this, resulting in much, much higher levels of fatalities than normal.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Two weeks ago, when I spoke to Norman Douglas at Gateslackburn in the Yarrow valley, and the scale of the problem had not yet materialised, he reckoned the prolonged bad weather, and especially the late bout of snow and wind in March, would result in major problems at lambing.

I am sure he will wish no credit from his prediction, but sadly he is being proven right.

It is a couple of weeks yet before the 2010 lambing season draws to a close but even now, it is safe to say the overall crop will be down, through losses of pregnant ewes and of lambs who have been born in a weakened condition.

The past winter has cost the sheep industry millions of pounds through extra feeding and it has also taken a hefty toll on the sheep themselves. One knackery in the north of Scotland took in more than 5,000 dead ewes and feeding hogs last week. With the vast majority of ewes still carrying their lambs, this alone has taken the best part of 1 million out of the industry. Longer-term damage is difficult to quantify but I know many shepherds will wonder about the long-term effects on their ewe flocks.

Much as I admire NFUS president Jim McLaren for his speed of thought and his ability to muster a vast collection of points in delivering a speech, I do think his appeal last week for arable farmers to leave more straw for the livestock industry may fall on deaf ears.

Cereal growers will make a commercial decision on whether there is cash to be made in baling straw for sale. Part of that equation will take into account whether the delay in getting the next crop into the ground through waiting for straw clearance is offset by the income for it.

Several readers took me to task for serious omissions to my “least popular” list. Former NFUS president, John Kinnaird, wondered why I had not mentioned gathering field stones.

For the younger generation brought up in an era where there are break-back mechanisms on every bit of cultivating machinery, this may seem a strange pastime. But for the older people who remember having to stop work to take a bent plough to the local smiddy or trying to batter a seed coulter back into shape after hitting a stone, there was an annual necessity to clear stones.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Normally, a small group of people would be seen straggling across a field behind a tractor and trailer. To this day, I recall them resembling a rather bedraggled group of pilgrims crossing a desert.

Their instructions would go along the lines of “do not pick up anything smaller than the size of your head.” The trouble was the stone picking was definitely a brain-shrinking job.

The travel writer, Eric Newby, related how during the Second World War, he had escaped from an Italian prisoner of war camp. After some time, he came across this peasant farmer who offered him food and shelter.

All that the farmer wanted in return was for Newby to pick stones off his fields and, for weeks thereafter, that is what he did. Soon, he related, he reached a point where he wondered whether it might not be better to return to his incarceration.

And for those who have not gathered stones, that tells you everything you need to know.