Hay's Way: Witnessing farmers in Scotland experiencing 'worst winter in living memory'

Farmers have said the weather this winter has been the worst “in living memory” for most - and I have seen evidence of that myself.

Spending the past two months walking from the south of Aberdeenshire, down through Angus, Fife, East Lothian and the Borders as part of Hay’s Way, I have covered a lot of farmland.

Given I started walking in March, I have only seen the tail end of the destructive and relentlessly wet autumn, winter and start to spring that livestock owners and crop growers have been dealing with for about six months.

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This week, an analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) described the past few months as “a washout winter” that “played havoc with farmer fields”.

The miles of flooded fields and mutterings of ‘not today’ from farmers when it comes to going out and planting spring crops has been a regular occurrence all along the east coast.

Wet conditions over the winter period is completely normal, but farmers have told me they’ve been left feeling like their fields will never dry up. It has taken me twice as long to walk through some areas because of how deep the mud is. I have sadly seen a noticeable amount of dead lambs who clearly didn’t make it through the extreme weather.

Matt McDiarmid of Mains of Murthly farm, Aberfeldy, rescuing a lamb that had been taking shelter in a tree trunk from the wet weather Matt McDiarmid of Mains of Murthly farm, Aberfeldy, rescuing a lamb that had been taking shelter in a tree trunk from the wet weather
Matt McDiarmid of Mains of Murthly farm, Aberfeldy, rescuing a lamb that had been taking shelter in a tree trunk from the wet weather | RSABI

Even just along the coastline, the path network has been closed off in various parts, including stretches in Fife and East Lothian, because of the damage from storms - of which there have been 11 named ones in the UK since September.

Fife Coastal Path near Elie diverted because of storm damage Fife Coastal Path near Elie diverted because of storm damage
Fife Coastal Path near Elie diverted because of storm damage | Katharine Hay

National Farmers Union Scotland said it had been “extremely wet” weather since October last year, and its members have said “since 1998, they’ve never seen anything like it”.

Claire Sloan, who I met on Hay’s Way and who farms at Ardross Farm, near Elie on the Fife Coast, said she has only just managed to get spring barley crops in now, as April ends, having had “a horrible winter”.

Fields at Ardross Farm near Elie in Fife Fields at Ardross Farm near Elie in Fife
Fields at Ardross Farm near Elie in Fife | Ardross Farm

“It’s been a long haul to get it in, and there was a time at the beginning of the season where I didn’t think we would get any in,” she said. “It wasn’t just us here. The winter was bad for everyone all over the UK. Everyone was just in despair.”

Despite the weather having improved in the past couple of weeks, Mrs Sloan said farmers would have to get used to more extreme conditions and make changes to forward planning.

The relentless rainfall meant fields lay flooded for weeks which delayed planting and ruined winter crops The relentless rainfall meant fields lay flooded for weeks which delayed planting and ruined winter crops
The relentless rainfall meant fields lay flooded for weeks which delayed planting and ruined winter crops | Ardross Farm

Claire Sloan (left) with her sister Nikki. Both run Ardross Farm and shop in FifeClaire Sloan (left) with her sister Nikki. Both run Ardross Farm and shop in Fife
Claire Sloan (left) with her sister Nikki. Both run Ardross Farm and shop in Fife | Katharine Hay

Carol McLaren, chief executive of leading agriculture charity RSABI, said staff workload had “increased substantially” due to the nature of calls and the issues people had been facing.

Carol McLaren, chief executive of leading agriculture charity RSABICarol McLaren, chief executive of leading agriculture charity RSABI
Carol McLaren, chief executive of leading agriculture charity RSABI | RSABI

Since 2021, the charity has seen demand for its counsellors increase five-fold between 2021 and 2024.

Speaking to The Scotsman, Ms McLaren said lambing was particularly bad this season, with one farmer reporting he had lower numbers than during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001.

“Certainly for many farmers it was the worst conditions in living memory,” Ms McLaren said. “You also have parents worrying about younger generations who haven’t experienced weather like this before and have to go through a bad winter for the first time.”

RSABI runs various campaigns to encourage farmers to seek help, but Ms McLaren said those working in the sector were generally not good at reaching for help for their physical and mental wellbeing. The charity has trained more than 600 people to be mental health first aiders to identify when help is needed.

“Mental health is a challenge in the industry,” she said. “People get into dangerous territory when they are stressed and anxious, and risk of injury is greater as they’re not getting a break, and we’re really trying to break that.”

There were some 25 farming-related fatalities in Scotland alone last year, according to 2023 figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

HSE said agriculture had the worst rate of worker fatal injury (per 100,000 workers) of all the main industry sectors, with the annual average injury rate over the past five years around 21 times as high as the all-industry rate.

NFU Scotland said the number of farming fatalities was “a stark and sobering reminder of just how poor our industry’s record is when it comes to deaths and serious injuries on our farms and crofts.”

NFU’s vice-president Rachel Hallos said “a crisis is building” across the UK, with customers who “may well see the effects through the year as produce simply doesn’t leave the farm gate”.

While farmers in Scotland have been struggling to get crops in the ground, NFU Scotland’s vice-president Andrew Connon was cautiously optimistic. “Scotland has a bit more time to play with as we have a later season here compared with England,” he said. “We’re not talking food shortages or massive price hikes - the start of the Ukraine war the grain prices soared massively, and we’re not near those prices.

“An air of calm is needed and hopefully the crops will improve if the weather does in the next few weeks. It’s not too late for Scotland.”

Analysis by ECIU released earlier this week estimated the amount of wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape UK-wide could drop by four million tonnes this year - a reduction of 17.5 per cent compared with 2023.

While the winter was not technically the wettest on record for Scotland, farmers said it was the persistent days of rainfall and regular storms that made it challenging.

According to Met Office data, Scotland as a whole with regard to rainfall had 560.3 mm recorded. The wettest winter on record for the country (in datasets back to 1836) is 2016 when 739.3 mm was recorded. This year sits 17th in the table. Figures showed it was the seventh wettest winter on record for Aberdeenshire with 388.4 mm of rain, while 2016 saw the wettest on record for the region with 481.4mm recorded. East Lothian experienced its ninth wettest winter, Angus its 14th, and Fife its 16th since records began.

- Anyone can contact Samaritans for free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The service is anonymous, confidential and non-judgemental. The charity can be contacted by phoning 116 123 or emailing [email protected].

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