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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Laughton

Country diary: Winter on the farm isn’t meant to be like this

Dark skies over the farm in the Cotswolds.
Dark skies over the farm in the Cotswolds. Photograph: Sarah Laughton

A seasoned farmer told me recently that he doesn’t truly consider winter to have begun until late December at least. Though wary of his predisposition to proclaim, usually with contrasuggestible intent, I’m beginning to think he has a point.

The monotony of mild, wet conditions during the summer, through the autumn and on into this new year have blurred three seasons into one. Our hedges remain uncut because the ground is inaccessible and I hear anecdotes of winter wheat sown not twice but three times now due to still-active slugs.

Farmers are always responding to weather and, of course, occasionally it works to our advantage. In late November, rather than begin supplementary feeding, I negotiated some leased grazing. At £3.50 a day as opposed to £3.50 for a small bale of hay, the economics and convenience were a godsend. But the order of this current adjustment feels unprecedented.

Soggy conditions on Sarah's farm in the Cotswolds.
‘I can’t remember the last time I found them lying on dry ground.’ Photograph: Sarah Laughton

The National Trust’s annual review of 2023, published just after Christmas, highlighted the threat to nature of rising temperatures, and this has seemingly been borne out by the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s ongoing text alerts warning farmers to remain vigilant following an outbreak of bluetongue in Kent. This virus, affecting cattle and sheep, is transmitted by those warm-weather pests, midges. Improbably, there are still some around. On top of that, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to blow on my hands when setting out in a draughty Land Rover loaded with breakfast hay.

I don’t know if we will just become accustomed to this “new normal”, but we’re certainly labouring under it for now. Even the cattle, by familiarity and breed conditioned to wintering out, seem fed up. I can’t remember the last time I found them lying on dry ground, cudding as they would normally after feeding. Instead they stand, coats matted, beneath dripping branches. The blackthorn, glistening darkly, somehow looks especially wet. The ditch has a rush of water, run off from the lanes above, themselves streams these days. And beyond I can hear the angry roar of the river, tiding into the meadow in places to meet the water bubbling up sinisterly through the surface.

This is a landscape saturated. And still “the rain it raineth every day”.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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