East Anglia: Cold, wet spring hits crops

A field near Coddenham was completely covered in snow in March, as temperatures plummeted

A field near Coddenham was completely covered in snow in March, as temperatures plummeted - Credit: Archant

EAST Anglian farmers are bracing themselves for low to mediocre harvests this year as the effects of the cold, wet spring take their toll on crops.

A disappointing start to this year’s growing season follows a difficult year for farmers last year, starting with drought and ending in floods.

John Collen, who farms at Gisleham, near Lowestoft, said the long cold spell had held all his crops back, with no growth until last week.

He estimated that millions of pounds worth of damage had been caused to farmers by hungry pigeons which had been plundering rape crops because of a lack of alternative winter feed such as acorns and berries.

“Most farmers I talk to have ploughed up 30% of rape or more. What’s left is poor at best,” he said.

He estimated they would harvest about half the usual tonnage of rape. The UK normally produces about 1million tonnes at around £400 a tonne so this could be costly for British farmers, he warned.

It was a similar picture all over the country, he said.

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“Wheat, early drilled, look OK but this represents 30% of the wheat area. The rest either didn’t get drilled or are still sat waiting to grow again,” he said.

He had grown a large area of spring barley which looked OK, but was about six weeks behind where it would normally be, he said.

Stephen Rash, who farms at Wortham, near Diss, and is the council delegate for Suffolk at the National Farmers’ Union, said it had been a long winter.

“Crop growth is well behind where it normaly is at this time of year,” he said.

So far it was a “mixed picture” following a long, cold and very wet winter.

Too much wet and cold was the worst combination for crops, he said, although some crops were now recovering as the weather improves.

“It’s going to have a knock-on effect,” he warned. “ I don’t think anyone is expecting a record harvest this year. We are busy adjusting our hopes downwards.”

In his own case, he had had to re-plant some of his winter rape and wheat crops following a stuttering start with plants which never really got going.

“It’s never going to turn round and be a bumper harvest but it could go either way at the moment and the odds are it’s going to be mediocre or awful,” he said.

“The potential for a record-breaking harvest is no longer there. I think most people are expecting a mediocre harvest at best.”

The ideal weather over the coming months would be sunshine interspersed with some rain, but not too much, he said.

“There’s always next year,” he added.

Andrew Blenkiron, who manages the Euston Estate near Thetford, said crops were two or three weeks behind because of the weather. Because the estate is on light, free-draining soil, wet conditions are not a problem, but he estimated they had lost around 10% or even 15% of the winter oilseed rape crop to excessive pigeon grazing and slugs.

“It’s been a real battle - the crop didn’t really want to grow and the pigeons didn’t have anything else to eat,” he said.

However, this week, it was almost possible to see the plants growing, he said, and he was hoping they would catch up. Two years ago, a promising start to the growing season ended badly, while last year a far less promising start yielded them much better crops. The sugar beet crop had come out of the ground well, but the very cold conditions meant the soil was damaged lifting them.

“We are budgeting on an average year at this stage,” he said.