Everyone has seen the very distressing images this week of sheep being rescued from snowdrifts and we have heard members of the public understandably asking why this has happened and what could have been done to prevent it.
In common with other areas, parts of our region, particularly along the Pennines, have been hit not only with heavy snow but also strong winds that have caused severe drifting – blocking roads and burying dry-stone walls.
Hill farmers and their stock are well used to and well equipped to deal with snow during winter – this is a natural part of the changing seasons. What has made this so exceptional is the quantity of snow, the prolonged low temperatures and strong winds so much later in the season when sheep are at their most vulnerable in late pregnancy or early lambing.
In response farmers have done everything possible to prepare and care for their stock – bringing them down to lower levels where possible, stocking up on fodder and for sheep used to coming indoors, bringing them into available buildings.
For many hill sheep “hefted” to the moors, bringing them inside is simply not an option. They are bred to live outside and spend their whole lives on their home range or heft. Bringing them inside during late pregnancy would be far too stressful – in fact many simply refuse to leave their heft. These sheep are natural foragers and often do better on the moor than on lower land near the farm where they are cooped up and reliant on the farmer for food.
In these circumstances, the farmer’s challenge is to provide additional food and spend as much time as possible with them – assisting where individuals may have got caught behind walls in drifts.
This is a battle for both farming families and their stock – each side giving everything they have to make it through to what we desperately need – a decent spring. Most farmers in our area report that while it may not be the worst snow event they have faced in a lifetime – it is the worst spring they can remember. This is something they cannot control, only do their best for their animals at a time of tremendous adversity.
The many messages of public support received in recent days by the farming community are hugely appreciated – they make all the difference when you’re working round the clock in such difficult conditions.
West Riding sheep farmer and NFU North East Livestock Board member