Northern Irish farmers ‘facing worst drought-type conditions since 1976’

Spring 2020 was the sunniest on record for Northern Ireland – but it was not welcomed by everyone.

Allan Chambers said yields of his crops this year could be down by 50% if the good weather continues
Allan Chambers said yields of his crops this year could be down by 50% if the good weather continues

Arable farmer Allan Chambers, a member of the UFU’s Seeds and Cereals Committee, says farmers are facing a dire situation due to the lack of rainfall.

It comes after an unusually hot and dry spell for the Province.

The News Letter has delved into official Met Office data, and found that spring 2020 (March, April and May) was the sunniest on record for Northern Ireland, with records stretching back to 1929.

Allan Chambers farms winter barley, winter wheat and forage maize

The season saw an average of 564.4 hours of sunshine across the Province’s weather stations (the average for a Northern Irish spring being 428.78).

It was also very dry, with the Met Office recording a Province-wide average of 125.3mm of rain – which is just 52% of the spring average.

At 13.04 Celsius, the average spring 2020 temperature for NI was 1.25 Celsius higher than the NI spring average, too.

And these statistics spell hard times for many of those working the land.

Mr Chambers, 74 and a former chairman of the committee on which he sits, is based outside Downpatrick and has three main crops: winter barley, winter wheat (drilled in the autumn and usually harvested in mid-July and mid-August respectively) and forage maize (usually established in springtime).

Both the winter crops are “in trouble” he said.

The maize is “ so far ok – but it needs rain”.

He said that the situation for him feels even worse than the Met Office stats indicate; he estimated his farm had experienced perhaps as little as 15% to 20% of typical rainfall during spring.

“It’s been horrendous,” he said.

“It just hasn’t rained for two-and-a-half months.

“I’m farming now for almost 60 years, and this is the most extreme spring that I have ever seen.

“The closest we came to the drought situation was back in 1976. This has been even more severe.”

He said what makes it worse is that his crops were already struggling after the winter, which he described as “the wettest four months there’s ever been”.

He added: “Then all of a sudden around the 17th of March everything dried up and there really hasn’t been any volume of rain since.

“It’s almost at the stage now where it’s too late to save some of them, to make any reasonable crop at all.”

He expects his yields right now to be down 20%, but if this dry weather continues we could be down to 50% of the typical yield – something which could spell a drop in income in the region of £60,000.

“We’ll survive. We’ll just have to go to the bank and get a bridging loan. I’ve done that before, we’ve had extremes of weather before. Way back in 1985 we had the wettest harvest we’ve ever had. We lost nearly everything that year.

“Everyone, even grassland farmers in our area, are really worried and concerned about grass yeilds. Sileage has to be baled to feed cattle over the wintertime and if the grass doesn’t grow you can’t bale silage.”

Asked if these strange patterns climate change: “It could well be. There’s no doubt that we’re getting more extremes of weather.

“For instance, last winter’s continuous rain. And this summer’s continuous dry weather.

“This is extremely unusual that the two would happen within a 12 month period.”

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