Scotland's farms take £161 million hit from extreme weather

15 May 2019 4 min. read
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The UK’s agricultural sector has been severely impacted by extreme weather conditions over the last 12 months, as the number of livestock dying early increased by more than 100,000 animals across the country. Scottish farmers were particularly hard hit, losing more than £161 million to the impact of extreme weather conditions in 2018, according to an industry study.

Farming in the UK faces an uncertain future, thanks to a variety of stress points currently putting pressure on the industry. The Brexit process has placed agriculture in a difficult position, as many farmers depend on EU subsidies at present, while the regulatory burden on the industry also threatens to shift rapidly in the wake of the UK’s secession from Europe. Perhaps the biggest problem faced by the sector, though, is the increasing impact of climate change on farming, largely in the shape of a rise in extreme weather events.

One example of this saw the UK’s cereal farming sector enter a difficult period in the second half of 2018. Due to a sustained heat-wave, the yield for cereal crops was lower than expected, pushing prices in stores up. Across the UK, farm fires during June and July were up on the 2017 period, and the overall costs of claims for farm fires over the harvest period rose by 21%, or £5.5 million, on the previous year. However, crops were not the only aspect of faming to take a beating in 2018.UK Fallen Stock Data Total Animals 2011-2018

According to a new study by ecological consultancy Ecosulis on behalf of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), direct losses to the livestock sector occurred via animal deaths, increased feeding costs, and longer housing periods during the winter. Low rainfall led to a poor return on feed crops, making it more expensive to keep livestock nourished, while a harsh winter and a baking summer meant a rising number of animals did not survive the year.

Ecosulis’ analysis found that total cereal production losses hit an estimated £62 million, compared with total output in 2017 of £403 million, while total ruminant livestock losses were estimated at £93.7 million, equivalent to 4.2% of the total output in 2017. At the same time, an examination of 2018’s UK Fallen Stock Data from the National Fallen Stock Company led the researchers to find that livestock losses of adult sheep and lambs during the spring were the highest since 2011. The 2018 total was also 31% higher than the seven-year average. Farmers in Scotland were especially hard hit by the volatile conditions.

The number of surviving cattle in Scotland now sits at a historic low, having declined rapidly since the year 2000. While the 2% drop in numbers to 1.76 million cattle in Scotland does come as a lengthy trend since 1957, the weather seems to have exacerbated it. While there were minimal losses of adult cattle, the number of cattle under one year were down by 27,500 ahead of the trend. Calf numbers fell to 520,000, down 3.5% from 2017, with the wet autumn likely impacting calving rates.Scottish Cattle Numbers 2000-2018

Overall, the study found that losses across Scottish agriculture totalled an estimated £161 million, equivalent to 6% of total output in 2017. The greatest impacts came from the cereal and sheep sectors, while the greatest proportionate impact was on the wheat sector, at 26% of output, and the largest single loss was to sheep, at £45 million.

Commenting on the study, Dr Sheila George, Food Policy Manager at WWF Scotland said, “Farmers are increasingly on the frontline of climate change, struggling with ever more unpredictable seasons and extreme weather. This report gives a snapshot of the huge financial toll, but behind these stats there is also a personal cost for farmers across the country. This year, the mild winter has boosted crop growth but the variability is already a huge challenge –  and climate change is going to lead to more frequent, extreme and unpredictable weather events, like we saw across 2017 and 2018.”

George also warned that worse may be to come, stating, “Last year’s extremes will soon be the norm, rather than the exception and that will have huge implications for farmers and the environment.  That’s why it’s so important the Scottish Government takes action now to support our agriculture sector to adapt to the challenges ahead.”