Owls and voles enjoying warmer winter weather

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

Much better weather again this last week with a sharp frost on Wednesday and Saturday, both followed by very nice sunny days.

The leaves have suddenly fallen from most trees, ensuring better protection from any storms or high wind, but leaves can be seen on some oak trees and hornbeam in particular. Holly berries seem to be plentiful this year, decorating the woodland.

The ground is still very wet and a dry spell now would make quite a difference. I see that the first snow has arrived in Cairngorm last week (best place for it?) and the weathermen were predicting some snow further south as the arctic winds hit this country. We are on track to have the warmest year ever recorded in 2014 if December stays reasonable.

I read that owls have had a great year for breeding, enjoying the mild weather, and I have certainly noticed a huge increase this year. Experts say that there were 3.9 fledglings per nest this year, up 43% on the average of 2.7 per nest.

An abundance of voles in the warm temperatures have maintained food supply for the owls, following some poor seasons where numbers dropped. I also see that there is a bumper crop of brussels sprouts this year which I really like.

Again the weather is to be thanked for bigger and sweeter sprouts, with good tight ball shape. Experts tell me that 434 million sprouts are sold in the two weeks before Christmas.

There are high grass covers everywhere and I see sheep up to their knees in grass on farms, and we have the same decision to make at Tillington. Do we graze the grass off with cattle or get a load of sheep in?

The cattle would do a much better job but sheep are lighter on the land, making less mess. It’s all about availability of cattle at the right price and what the weather is likely to do over the coming months, but we need to move fast before hard frosts kill the grass and then we really are in a fix.

I attended the Cheese Ceremony last Wednesday at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. I have been many times before and I thoroughly enjoy going and admiring the hospital founded by King Charles the Second in 1682. The building is full of portraits, and commemorations of past wars and battles. It is astonishing how many this country has been involved in over the years.

We produce over 200 different cheeses in this country and a good selection was presented to the pensioners, and we had the ceremony of cutting the cheese with a large ceremonial sword.

An interesting lunch where one can listen to the tales of the past, and we were entertained by Vincent and Flavia from ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ who are working on their ‘Dancing Till Dawn’ show which opened in the West End in October.

Dairy prices suffered greatly last week as the industry suffered 16 price cuts in 5 days, which takes many producers to a very difficult situation indeed. There is a huge range of over 10 pence per litre now between the lowest price and the highest.

Add to that the different efficiencies, scale, geographical location and quality of land, rented or occupied and it becomes a complex picture indeed. It is going to be a very difficult winter for sure and when the spring arrives with its flush of milk, the industry will be challenged as never before.

There are no easy solutions to this, world prices have almost halved in a year, and although a tiny percentage is traded across the globe, as most is consumed in the country of origin, this is the market price.

There are a few signs that things are stabilising, but it is going to be a long haul and I don’t expect farm prices to lift until next autumn unless something unforeseeable happens. Production in Europe is expected to fall next year, but the USA and Australia are powering ahead with their production.

The editorial in The Times commented that more than 440 dairy farmers have left the industry in the last year, commenting on the power of a handful of pennies at the supermarket till.

The bigger anomaly is the bizarre labelling convention (it said); where supermarkets can claim British cheese is produced in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand!

The supermarket Ombudsman Christine Tacon should have her powers extended before Gray’s Elegy depicting ‘a dairy herd winding home as the shades of night fall around it’ becomes, rather than an enduring meditations on the British countryside; a dismal epitaph.

I was at the Poultry Awards Ceremony in the House of Commons the other day, and one would be forgiven for thinking that this unsupported sector, battling with outbreaks of Avian Flu again and the fuss over campylobacter infected chicken in supermarkets, would be depressed.

Not a bit of it! They were rationally looking at what the problems are and how they will overcome them, looking to a better future and generally remarkably up-beat. Very little chicken is sold around Christmas as consumers switch to turkey or buy hams, beef or other game birds. January is the time for the chicken industry, as consumers turn to cheaper meats after all the spending over Christmas.

Chicken is a great sauce carrier of course and the amount of various sauces and other flavouring which the supermarkets have built up as an ‘accessory’ to chicken, I was told that they make more money out of the extras than they do out of the chicken.

Poultry accounts for half the meat eaten in this country, the same volume as beef, pork and lamb combined. 90% of poultry eaten in the UK is British, with exports having grown by three and a half times in the past twenty years.

This amounts to £6 billion in gross annual sales, £3.3 billion in value added contribution to GDP, and £1 billion total tax payable to the exchequer. There are over 70,000 jobs in the industry and I was pleased to see how many young people are now involved in this exciting industry.

I was also told on the night that we are producing white eggs in this country again, having predominantly produced brown which is the customer’s favourite.

There is more goodness in white eggs and the hens are far less aggressive which makes managing them easier, but as eggs are not allowed to be washed, white eggs have never sold as well due to markings. In other countries eggs are washed, and they have developed a technique where the porous eggs are immediately oiled after washing which seems to do the trick.

The profitability of poultry is heavily reliant on feed cost and most producers are supplying on contracts where the cost of feed is immediately taken into account, but it does at least enable them to maintain their thin margins and take out market volatility.

Competing against countries where GM grain is allowed makes life tough, but the biggest problem in the poultry sector is maintaining cash-flow in the business.

Free range and organic chicken for meat have diminished greatly as the pressure of making them pay is too great, and it seems that it will be some time before they return.