24 March 2000

Wetter winters mixed blessing – MAFF

WINTERS are becoming wetter which could be a mixed blessing for livestock producers, according to scientists, but MAFF believes climate change is unlikely to significantly change livestock production.

UK climate scientists believe winters are wetter and there are more days of downpours when large quantities of rain fall in a short time compared with 40 years ago, says the BBC website.

But wetter winters could mean good news for extended grazing, according to IGER Aberystwyths head of conservation, Raymond Jones.

"Producers seeking to extend the grazing season will welcome higher rainfall, however heavy winter downpours could hinder them as ground is more susceptible to poaching," says Dr Jones.

Heavier rainfall is also extending into April and May, according to Dr Jones. "Our records for Wales show that April rainfall averaged 60mm with 10.5 wet days between 1954 and 1999. Last year, April rainfall was 99mm and there were 21 wet days in the month.

Wet in early May

"We have also noticed an increasing trend towards wet weather in early May which can delay silage making. Using later flowering varieties may be a way to overcome this by providing more windows of opportunity for grass conservation."

Launching a booklet on the effect of climate change on UK agriculture last week, MAFF said it believes climate change will have little effect on livestock production.

But Bristol University parasitologist Gerald Coles says more research is necessary. "Recent research involving horses at Bristol shows that winter frosts are not severe enough to kill infective parasite larvae," he says. "This could have implications for other species, especially as producers extend grazing periods for cattle and sheep.

"There is a lack of research on how fast and by how much climate is affecting parasite infectivity to enable us to work out how we should adapt our control programmes."

Thats a point that parasitologist Gordon Graham agrees with, but he says temperature has the greatest effect on parasite burden.

Summer heat

"Summer temperatures still have the greatest influence on parasites, but milder winter temperatures mean a longer parasitic season. Producers are also extending the grazing season, so animals are more likely to pick up infection such as fluke.

"There are no official counts of parasite numbers on grass now, so we have less idea of what is happening. Lack of money in the livestock sector means producers are also less likely to dose animals, again increasing risks – if theres no control, there will be more disease," says Mr Graham.