Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Will Cartwright-Hignett blogs on environmental issues

The Iford Valley is partly managed under a Higher Level Stewardship agreement, a government scheme which works in partnership with farmers to ensure enhanced levels of environmental and ecological protections. The celebrated gardens at Iford Manor are open to the public, and host an arts festival in the summer months, including opera and jazz concerts.

Whatever the weather, if you ask a farmer about it you can guarantee to hear a downbeat story of sorrow and woe – when it’s warm growing weather, there’s not enough rain; when it’s raining, it isn’t falling consistently enough; and when it does, the still air is encouraging mildew; and so on.

In most cases our stories of weather trouble help to offset our constant worry that the viability of the farming business is subject to the unpredictable nature of the British weather and therefore partly out of our hands.  With Nature playing an unpredictable role, farming is necessarily a profession where one is constantly fighting rear-guard actions to combat the next challenge.  Whilst one can plan contingencies for a lot of situations, Nature has a habit of bowling off-breakers and there’s no predicting them – especially when it comes to the weather.

This year, if you hear a farmer complaining about the weather, he probably has a point – a serious one, at that, which could affect every one of us.

Even the most cursory glance through the newspaper will tell you that large swathes of the UK are now in drought, whilst other parts of the country have experienced record rainfall.  These extreme contrasts have done no favours for either the dry or the wet regions.  But pick up an East Anglian newspaper (or a copy of the august Farmers Weekly) and you will hear stories of irrigated vegetable crops being jettisoned, cropping areas reduced, and some crops are said to be at risk of establishing so poorly that it may not be cost effective to harvest them come maturity.  The next fortnight will be critical before we know how serious the situation is, but rain needs to be on the agenda, and soon.

The impact of a poor harvest is clear on food prices.  A lack of self-sufficiency puts the UK at greater risk of having to purchase from potentially adverse external markets.  Food prices are already high as it is, and whilst Britons are not prone to rioting over the price of bread, supermarket bills clearly affect a citizen’s disposable income.  For the poorest in society it can be the difference between one side of the bread line and the other – so this rain stuff really matters.

The aggregated deficit against average rainfall in East Anglia, for example, stands at 8 inches over the last 15 months.  Putting that in context, that’s about 60% of the expected rainfall in a year for parts of the fens, which already require irrigation for their vegetable crops.  Despite this, records show that 2011 was the wettest year ever recorded in Dumfries & Galloway.  We need to start looking at resources on a national scale, as we do with oil, gas and electricity.

Food security in the home market can only be achieved by ensuring that our ‘bread baskets’ and vegetable regions such as East Anglia and Lincolnshire have the necessary water resources to grow our food – if not, we are reliant on imports, themselves reliant on harvests elsewhere coming good.

Despite the parlous state of the public finances, perhaps it really is time to turn our attention from the economic deficit to the less journalistically exciting issue of the soil moisture deficit?  We should revisit the infrastructural needs of water distribution, and consider a national water network, rather than a regional one as we have currently.  A north-south pipeline, for example, would allow the surpluses from the North to replenish the deficits of the South, and ensure that some of our best growing land in the south could be effectively irrigated.

On our own farm in the Iford Valley on the Wiltshire/Somerset border, we are not in quite such a dry state yet, but we have started to examine the best use of our water resources in case we don’t see meaningful rain in the coming months.  Having recently completed a hydro-electric plant on a weir in the river (and which is currently almost idle because of the low water levels) we are well aware of the impact that low water levels can have.  Our beef herd needs constant watering and looking at the worst case scenarios, we are looking to ensure that we take advantage of the ‘quick-wins’ – large-scale storage options; rain-water harvesting from roofs; and checking pipelines regularly for leaks.  These are all ways in which we can make the best use of rain when it does arrive.

We all have to do our part. The first of the hosepipe bans are coming into force on 5th April; a brick placed in the loo cistern saves a litre every time you flush; and turning off the tap whilst brushing offers a surprising saving too.  In more arid parts of the world, much is made of “grey water”, the not-particularly-contaminated water which in the UK usually goes into the waste pipe (such as the outflow from a bath), but which could be used to water the garden, say.

Ultimately, though, it is only through the arrival of fresh rains that the situation will alleviate.  So next time you see a weather forecaster saying how disappointing it is that there are clouds on the horizon, shout at your television – he has clearly forgotten just how truly life-giving those rains can be.

Whether the weather be hot,
Whether the weather be cold,
We’ll weather the weather,
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!

Will Cartwright-Hignett was brought up on his parents’ farming estate at Iford Manor, on the Wiltshire/Somerset border. After some time away spent in business, he has recently returned to Iford to join the family business, managing the farm and estate. Will is passionate about agriculture and rural heritage; he works closely with the Historic Houses Association and has a bespoke tea company through which he imports fine teas for hotels and select clients.

Catch up with the latest news on the Iford blog.


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