But behind the headline lies a tale of the severe effects the prolonged cold spell, which has gripped north west Europe, is having on farmers' crops and livestock all the way from Scotland to the south of France.
The organisers of Scotgrass, an event designed to showcase agricultural mowing equipment, have been forced to cancel an event scheduled for next month due to lack of grass. This year, the coldest March on record has proved too much for the few blades of grass that have peeked through the soil, so much so that The Herald reports that Hugh McClymont, who was set to host this year’s event at his farm near Dumfries in south west Scotland, said his fields were bare. Speaking to the newspaper, Mr McClymont said, “There hasn't been enough growth. The soils are too cold. It's the latest spring we've ever seen and the worst in the 30 years I've been here."
The event organiser Duncan Russell reckoned this year’s growth was almost two months behind the norm and with there being no sign of the cold weather currently gripping the British Isles and northern Europe changing at least until next week the signs are that many European farmers are in for a difficult summer.
Channel 4 reported yesterday that the UK wheat harvest could be up to a third lower than normal after an extended spell of wet weather stretching back to the summer of 2012 was followed by the extreme cold snap seen this year. Because of the extremely wet conditions in 2012, many crop fields in Yorkshire, one of the UK’s principal arable farming areas, were not sown until late in autumn as the soil remained waterlogged from record summer rains. This year, spring has yet to arrive with the result that many of last year’s autumn sown winter wheat crops have either failed to germinate or, where they did, have resulted in stunted unharvestable growth.
Oil seed rape is no different. By this time of the year, oil seed rape should be easily two feet high and on the point of transforming the British countryside into a patchwork of brilliant yellow under warm spring sunshine. But from the Lowlands of Scotland to the Loire valley in France, it’s the same story of oil seed rape plants a mere few centimetres high, many stripped bare as pigeons and other birds strip the leaves in search of sparse food during a freezing start to 2013.
Further south in Herefordshire, BBC News highlighted the case of farmer Steve Deakins who lost his entire 400 acre (about 160 hectares) crop of oil seed rape to a combination of rain and snow. Mr Deakins had also lost a number of lambs to disease and the weather in what he said was his worst 12 months in 20 years of farming at Kinsham in Herefordshire. He said, "You expect one problem in one department every year, be it drought or wet, or poor lambing percentages or something. But this year absolutely everything that can go wrong has gone wrong."
In France, shoppers are already experiencing an absence of the normally vast array of seasonal vegetables in the shops. The Republicain-Lorrain noted yesterday (in French) that in the north of France planting of leeks, carrots, onions and lettuce had all been delayed. Amongst more exotic vegetables, the newspaper said asparagus would be almost two weeks late in reaching market stalls and supermarket shelves this year.
The delayed and non-existent crops come on top of many farmers across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland suffering heavy livestock casualties as this year’s lambing season was hit by widespread extreme snowfalls which buried many lambs. On top of that, many communities, particularly in Northern Ireland and the island of Arran in Scotland, found themselves without power for days on end due to the severe damage the snows and ice caused to parts of the electricity grid.
For some farmers, the blocked roads and lack of power meant milk yields had to be dumped. For others, particularly sheep farmers, they could be hit especially hard by the combination of circumstances. Lack of growth in grass crops this spring will almost certainly work through to shortages of feedstuffs for stock this coming winter meaning farmers having to buy in more feed.
If that comes on top of a farmer with 200 ewes taking a hit from losing 200 lambs at £80 apiece to the weather, many farmers, already operating on the margins of profitability, might decide enough is enough.