Farmers pray for rainfall after driest spring for 100 years

West Walton grower John Portass.
West Walton grower John Portass.
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FARMERS across Fenland are praying for rain as the area faces a disastrous lack of rainfall.

Only around a 10th of the normally expected rainfall has fallen in the past three months causing a major headache for farmers, who fear a lack of rain could spell disaster later in the year.

In fact some are already counting the costs with apple and plum crops decimated because of the weather. Both fruits are likely to be at least 75 per cent down in yields this year.

Apple grower John Portass, from West Walton, explained the warm weather had led to earlier blossoming of trees but a sudden frost three weeks ago on May 4 saw temperatures plummet to nearly minus three.

The blossom can survive frost, but because of the warm spell temperatures rose quickly the following day leading to a fast thaw, which led to the fruitlets being frozen out.

Mr Portass said some varieties had fared better than others but generally his orchards were looking at a reduction of between 25 and 75 per cent on the usual crop yield.

But he said it was too soon to say whether shoppers would be facing higher prices for their apples this autumn as that depends on Eastern European and the national harvests.

Plum grower Fred Leach said this was likely to be the worst year for his fruit for over 30 years.

“It’s absolutely awful. I don’t think there are any plums, or if there are there are very, very few left because of the frost. It is the worst I have known it for a long time,” said Mr Leach.

Livestock farmers are equally concerned as the dry weather has meant a stop in grass growth meaning they are having to feed their animals using up winter rations of hay.

Cattle farmer Charles Smart of Elm said he was using grazing normally reserved for hay making.

“It’s serious, there is no grass it is as simple as that. Normally I would expect it to be like this in July or August. I can’t remember it being as bad as this, as early as this. They are comparing it to the drought of 1976, but that started later. It is a trying time and is causing twice the work we would normally have at this time of the year as we are having to feed the cattle,” said Mr Smart, who is also predicting a shortage of hay in the winter.

“I cut a field this week. I got 40 round bales off it, I would normally expect to get at least 100 bales so that is also worrying,” he added.

Arable crops are also suffering and Newton farmer John Hoyles, who grows wheat and barley as well as potatoes and sugar beet, said the spring barley was looking very poor.

And he is predicting a straw shortage as the wheat and barley crops are four to five inches shorter than would normally be expected.

He said some sugar beet was looking ‘extraordinarily’ good, while some was virtually standing still and not progressing as it should.

“We badly need the rain, we don’t want thunder storms with huge downpours but just a good steady rain. We have been praying for a wet May, but that has not happened,” said Mr Hoyles.

But for strawberry farmer Henry Duncalfe, of Friday Bridge, the warm weather has meant an early start to the season with harvesting starting a good two weeks earlier than normal.

“It is good news for us because it means we have had a couple of weeks extra to market our crops. But the weather is a bit extreme and our arable crops could do with an inch or two of rain,” said Mr Duncalfe.

The warm weather also meant an early start for the asparagus harvest, but March grower Will Aveling said the crop was now being affected with productivity dropping.

“It is just not as vigorous, it is slow for this time of the year and we will no doubt be finished about two weeks earlier than usual.”

But there is good news for gardeners as despite everything Anglian Water announced this week they would not be restricting supplies or introducing hosepipe bans this summer as their reservoirs are around 90 per cent full.

Anglian Water’s Managing Director, Peter Simpson, has written to the area’s MPs to assure them the water supply is secure and will remain so even if the warm weather continues.