Before moving to Kent some 40 years ago I had become rather used to a degree of predictability and consistency in the patterns of the weather, particularly as I relocated from north Wales. In north Wales, if it’s raining and it’s warm you know that it is summer; if it’s raining or snowing and it’s cold it’s winter. That’s slightly unfair, Wales can have some lovely weather but you know that you are going to get plenty of rain.
Being accustomed to a degree of predictability was almost certainly enhanced by the four years spent in the Middle East, where, when you get out of bed in the morning you know precisely what the day’s weather is going to be. In the summer it starts hot and gets hotter; in the winter it starts cold, frosty even, and gets hot; and if it starts warm and gets hotter it is either spring or autumn. The couple of rainy days each year are easily ignored as they tend to be more of a hindrance, messing up irrigation schedules, than a help.
The first winter I was in Kent people frequently said: “Oh, this is not a normal winter.” The problem was they said the same the next winter and the one after. With the bulk of our country’s weather coming from the south west, Kent tends to get what is left over, except of course when it comes from the east and then Kent gets the lot; the past few years have simply served to reinforce this view.
Back in early May, grass supplies were tight and getting tighter. Producers were pleased to see a bit of rain, but weren’t quite sure where things were going weather wise; nights were still unseasonably cold and there was always the prospect of things drying up again. As it turned out, the rain kept coming and once things started to warm up the grass was playing catch up. Typically, after a period of stress, catch up for the grass meant growing fast enough and sufficiently to put up a flower spike, determined to set seed before things changed for the worse once again. In a matter of weeks we moved from a developing famine to a feast, with grass getting away from the sheep. I have to think back a long way before I can recall a year in which I have had so much grass in front of the sheep at the end of May.
This situation does, though, present a bit of a dilemma, giving us the prospect of abundant grass supplies but falling quality as it progresses towards flowering and seeding: what to do for the best. In the past I would have topped off the paddock to remove emerging seed heads before the sheep went in, but with warmer and sunnier weather once again there is always the looming prospect of things drying out again.
Poor quality grass is better than no grass at all, even if it is only belly fill. However, with a combination of fairly rapid rotation around the paddocks and topping off after the sheep have moved on, I seem, more by luck than anything else, to be keeping a decent wedge of reasonably good quality grass in front of the sheep, generally managing to top off just as grass is coming up to flowering. It is nice this season to be able to use paddocks properly, the first time for several years. An additional advantage of moving sheep around the paddocks fairly quickly is that they are not hitting them too hard. Moving them on with a decent grass cover still in place is certainly helping to keep the moisture where it should be and traps a bit of dew, as well as prompting quicker regrowth. Leaving plenty above ground certainly helps what is going on below ground and leaves the roots in a much better condition than they would be with tighter grazing.
We were lucky that the rain came at just the right time. Had we gone into a drought situation so early in the year, a lot of sheep keepers really would have been facing significant problems, particularly because after the 2020 season forage stocks are very low, and for many non-existent; the summer is only just starting.
So, what can we do to help alleviate problems in future drought situations? I have already mentioned careful grazing management to conserve available moisture, but this is often easier said than done. Faced with dwindling grass supplies it is very tempting to hit grazing harder than we know is wise. Longer term solutions are available and, based upon the experiences of the recent hot and dry summers, worth exploring. One option is to make use of more drought tolerant species and varieties either in reseeds or for over-sowing; 20 years ago plant breeders would not have seriously considered developing drought tolerant varieties for the UK market; now they certainly are. Mixed species swards are another option where there is considerable and growing interest. Inclusion within a mix of some deeper-rooted species (don’t just think grass) and varieties enables the sward to draw moisture from a wider soil profile. Single species swards will have all of their roots at about the same level, all competing for the same limited soil moisture, which may be rapidly depleted, even if there is still moisture available at depth.
Another alternative which also has wider benefits in terms of soil health and carbon capture capacity is to build soil organic matter levels. Sadly, organic matter has been harvested from many soils over the past 50 or 60 years without any real thought given to replacing it. Substituting fertiliser to fulfil the function largely occupied by organic matter has been rather too easy. This is an approach that sadly ignores the other functions of organic matter, one of which is retaining moisture in the soil. With 1% organic matter, the soil will hold about an inch (25mm) of water. Simply increasing soil organic matter by 2% (although not quite as easy as it sounds) would increase the soil’s capacity to trap and hold moisture by about the same amount of rain that most of the South East had in May; consider what that did for grass growth.
Sheep producers are in a position to do something to increase the resilience to adverse weather patterns, particularly dryer summers, but there are also ways, worthy of exploration, in which we can extend grazing seasons at both ends of the year. All of which can help to reduce costs of production, an important consideration even though sheep meat prices have remained fairly firm.
Exports of sheep meat did increase by just over 10% in March, but the overall position for the first quarter of the year is that they were down by 22%, EU exports in particular falling by 26%. The impact of this on prices has been partially offset by a significant drop in imports, which have declined by some 15% overall, including a 46% drop in imports from Australia; watch this space. Trade deals, concluded with rather indecent haste, without any real consultation, could have a significant impact. New Zealand imports dropped by 10% and Irish imports by 71%, year on year, all of which have helped to sustain prices. Firm prices do have the potential to translate into enhanced producer confidence when it comes to breeding stock sales this autumn. Good quality, productive breeding stock is important for the future of the industry, and good stock is not cheap stock - hence the old adage “there are good rams and there are cheap rams, but there is no such thing as good cheap rams”.
For a productive flock it is worth investing in good quality youngstock. The same principle may also be applied to young, new entrants to the sheep sector. There are some good (some very good), young shepherds out there and they need investment; investment in terms of funding for education and training that is largely the role of government, sadly a role that it has failed miserably to fulfill for decades. They also need investment in time and this falls largely to the sheep industry, we all need to be encouraging good new entrants; we need them, more than many appreciate. But along with giving them appropriate experience, we also need to foster a meaningful, open-minded and questioning approach to the industry. They need to be prepared for the 21st century not confined by dogma and attitudes from the 20th century.