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Published February 19, 2014, 11:18 AM

UK floods pose threat to animal welfare

The immediate threat to British agriculture from floods and storms has put animal welfare in the spotlight, but in the long-term increasingly erratic weather is likely deter investment, despite continuing global growth in demand for food.

By: Nigel Hunt,

LONDON — The immediate threat to British agriculture from floods and storms has put animal welfare in the spotlight, but in the long-term increasingly erratic weather is likely deter investment, despite continuing global growth in demand for food.

Floods have destroyed cattle bedding and feed in flood-hit regions such as southwest England and submerged crops with the consequences likely to be felt for months, if not years, in terms of lower production of both crops and meat.

Thousands of acres of farmland in Britain are underwater, some of which has been submerged for weeks, although agricultural economists say it is too early to forecast how output might be affected.

“Of course there is a big cost to this but at the moment the big worry is making sure the cattle are fed and dry,” says Chris Mallon, chief executive of the National Beef Association.

Some farmers have turned to social media with #Tractoraid on twitter providing updates on the progress of 30 metric tons of donated feed and bedding on a 225-mile journey by tractor from Yorkshire in northern England to Somerset in the southwest.

“At the moment, people will be helping and people will be interested, but once the flood water disappears and it is not as visible, farmers will be having to make sure their business survives and it will be very difficult,” Mallon says.

The National Farmers Union on Feb. 13 called on members to make longer-term commitments rather than immediate donations.

“What we now need are the pledges of fodder or straw, rather than the actual deliveries, so that we can call upon people’s generosity as and when it is required over the coming weeks and months, when the waters finally abate and farmers return to face a fetid swamp,” says NFU regional director Melanie Squires.

Drought to deluge

Britain has swung from drought to deluge in the past couple years, posing major challenges for the country’s farmers.

The country’s then farming and environment minister Caroline Spelman called a drought summit in February 2012, a year which turned out to be the second wettest on record in Britain.

The rains led to Britain’s harvesting its smallest wheat crop in more than a decade last summer and the latest drenching is expected to lead to more disease in crops and increased indebtedness among farmers.

“The fiscal impact will last long after the flood waters recede,” NFU chief economist Phil Bicknell says, adding the erratic weather has coincided with increasingly volatile prices for agricultural crops and created “a new set of challenges”.

“It is difficult for them (farmers) to plan ahead. Where is the incentive for them to invest consistently and we need consistent investment,” he says.

Livestock farming is barely profitable in Britain for even the most efficient producers and cattle numbers have been falling by about three percent a year.

“The average livestock farmer last year made just over 16,000 pounds in terms of farm business income so any sort of repair operation, reseeding is going to significant eat into those sort of margins,” Bicknell says.

Dairy cows in parts of western England and Wales also normally start to graze in February as grass begins to grow, Derrick Davies, vice chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers says.

Davies says some farmers may, therefore, be running short of winter stocks of food.

The rains may also have disrupted potato planting which began in Cornwall in December and would normal be underway across southern England.

“It is too early to understand the impact of the recent wet weather. It may have delayed plans to plant some new potatoes in the south,” a spokeswoman for the Potato Council says.

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