Floods: much still to be cleared up

01 May 2014, at 1:00am

Richard Gard sees and hears how vets and farmers are working together to restore ‘order’ in parts of Somerset – with problems for some people escalating

TODAY (in early April) it is still raining and farms on the Somerset levels are unable to be farmed.

The local paper has highlighted five vehicles that have been dragged out of a feeder ditch leading to the river Tone. It appears that these may have been under the mud for some 20 years.

Meetings between farmers and the Environment Agency have been quite heated. The subject of dredging has been around for several years and there are major issues between those who wish to retain water and those who wish to shed it. Somewhat simplistically, a division between the waterfowl folk and the farmers has been highlighted.

When the water levels rose significantly, cattle were moved to the market at Junction 24 for practical welfare reasons. Barns were already surrounded by water and there were real fears of not being able to cope. So around 500 animals were transported by all means available into the market stalls. Three days later other cattle would be arriving for the weekly sale and there were deep discussions about disease transfer risks.

As it turned out, the farmers involved were offered alternative barn accommodation for some of the stock and other beasts were sold. A major support structure was developed, with fodder being provided from other farms, which is seen as a significant demonstration of farmer solidarity. Young Farmers groups and others delivered and donated bales from considerable distances.

The statistics indicate that 25 square miles of land was under water (28,000 acres of farmland). The pumping has now finished, the waters have receded from homes and the land is said to be “brown and lifeless”.

Agronomists have estimated that it will be two years before crops will be able to be grown and have referred to the land as “toxic”. This label has been hotly debated and the Environment Agency talked about contaminated land. The farmers sought urgent clarification.

No data on contamination

At a meeting involving farmers and other landowners the term contaminated was challenged and it was admitted that no data were available to indicate levels of contamination. It was assumed that the residue from the floods would contain chemicals and “unnatural substances” that would be deposited on the land. Septic tank contents and fuel oil have been highlighted.

For the farmers, the application of loose terminology could have very serious consequences if the meat and milk buyers prove reluctant to buy the farm produce, so the admission that there is “no contamination” is seen as very important. More information will no doubt be forthcoming.

The AHVLA has indicated that the consequences should be little different to other years when flooding on the levels has been experienced. Human sewage sludge is not an uncommon product being routinely spread on farmland.

In 2012 there was flooding and many farmers were unable to gather sufficient fodder to meet the needs of the cattle for the winter. Some have reduced stock numbers and others have purchased expensive feed from other areas. There have been production difficulties with dairy herds and health targets have had to be reassessed.

Beef cattle born in 2012 are now said to be six months behind in weight. The flooding that started in late December 2013 and accelerated through the early part of this year has therefore followed an already difficult period for the farmers.

Through social networking the fodder relief scheme grew and initially it was the more modern farms with buildings on the levels that had their stored supplies flooded.

Around a dozen herds had to be evacuated to any available accommodation. Some 50 farms have received donated fodder to keep stock fed. The more traditional moorland farms had buildings on higher land and were able to manage a little better.

Indefinite delay

Now, however, the land that would be grazed is not available and some 700 farms are believed to require help. Turn-out is delayed indefinitely. Some sections of land are said to be “greening up” but soil compaction and acidity are issues.

It is expected that acres will be ploughed and seeded as soon as possible with the hope of growing food for next winter. There are restrictions on land that is part of Natural England stewardship schemes and those farmers are waiting to see what is acceptable. It is said that Natural England is being very helpful but the next few weeks of activity will directly influence production for next year and beyond.

There are well-known disease issues associated with water including leptospirosis, liver fluke and rumen fluke. Many large businesses are already involved in helping the farmers and it may be that some of the veterinary pharmaceutical companies are looking to help with vaccination or diagnostic support. 

For the veterinary practices with farmer clients who have had flooded land it would be very useful to learn of the experiences of other vets working in areas that have been flooded in the past. In recent years many parts of the country have experienced flooding.

Of concern is that changes to the content of fodder due to elements within the floodwater may not be seen for two to three years. Fertility is perhaps one of the direct concerns. It is anticipated that the larger dairy herds will receive ongoing veterinary advice and support and get themselves sorted out but the people involved with the flooded farms are worried about the “dog and stick” farmers.

Various support organisations have come together and this includes the rural stress organisations. It is anticipated that with the withdrawal of the Dutch pumps and the intensive clear-up activity there will be a need for emotional support to go along with practical help.

As well as the farms, many homes and businesses were flooded and for some people the problems are now escalating.

Free fodder distribution

During the rest of this year the distribution of free fodder is expected to continue and farms are being assessed on the basis of need.

Donations of money are being received and the Seat Toledo, the roof of which was seen widely on television as boats passed it parked on the road, was sold on eBay with a spoof bid of over £100,000. There was a genuine bidder with the money to be donated to the disaster fund and it may yet yield effective support. To date there have been nearly 800 donations.

Veterinary surgeons who have experience of the effects of floodwater on livestock are invited to share their experiences. The need to recognise potential problems and to initiate effective prevention strategies, based on case histories, would be an effective contribution to disaster relief. Hopefully, those with experience will indicate that all will be well and that nature heals itself.

n With thanks to Ann Langdon for talking about her ongoing experiences with the fodder relief effort.