There’s a peculiar smell in the air at Norton Court Farm; a particularly pungent one, an unpleasant and unfamiliar one. It’s the smell, say Mike and Jean Smith, of rotting vegetation. “We’ve got used to it,” say the couple, who milk 140 cows near Tewkesbury. “It’s the same as a lot of farm smells; when you live here you don’t notice them, but passersby certainly do.”
The source of the unusual odour is the grass that was killed when the rivers Chelt and Severn burst their banks, leaving about 450 of their 700 acres affected. “The grass was devastated. I’ve never seen anything like it – it looks like it’s been sprayed off with Gramoxone,” says Mike.
The deluge started on Friday July 20 and there was about 4 inches in that day. “Nobody’s ever seen rain like it,” he recalls. “Everywhere flash-flooded. There was water running from places I’d never seen it run before. The yard was like a river.” Mike was at a farm sale and struggled to make it back, with roads soon unpassable and cars left abandoned on the A38, which passes within a few hundred yards of the house. More rain followed that weekend. Houses on the lower ground flooded; whole swathes of land were submerged. Some farmers saw their buildings began to fill up with water; others could only watch as their machinery was wrecked.
The local farm store, so rumour has it, sold 3000 pairs of wellies in a week. “That must be a record,” Mike says.
The area around Norton Court Farm soon became unpassable except by tractor and even some of them got stuck. The staff struggled to get in and out. The worst day for the Smiths was the following Tuesday, when the milk tanker couldn’t get in because of the closed roads. “We lost about a day’s milk.”
Without the traffic, the area also became eerily quiet. “It was so quiet everywhere. The A38 – a busy road – is normally hard to get out onto, but for a few days, you didn’t even need to look left or right!” The water was so deep on some of the Smiths’ land that on one occasion Mike – a keen surfer – had to wear a wetsuit to move some of his stock. One neighbour even used a canoe to reach animals.
It wasn’t as if the family didn’t already have a lot on their minds: they were gearing up for their daughter Celia’s wedding the next
weekend. They pressed ahead with the plans, determined not to cancel the event. Nearly every farm in this part of the world was affected, the exact extent depending on what proportion of the land is flood plain. At Norton Court, some maize and wheat was hit, but it was mainly grass, meaning the big problem they now face is an acute shortage of winter food.
Short of Winter Feed
“We usually make about 1000 big round bales of hay, but we’ve got none at the moment and are not likely to have any. There isn’t going to be the fodder about to buy, and what is for sale will be pricey. We could be desperately short of feed. I haven’t had time yet to work out how much it’s going to cost.” They had done one silage cut before the deluge, but had been hoping to get another 100 acres done the day before the rain started. “If we’d done that, it wouldn’t have been so bad.” Luckily, however, they had worked
late and got the rape harvested just before the skies opened. “We were very fortunate to get that in.”
Now they have had a chance to reflect on the situation, they reckon they have a lot to be thankful for. “It could have been a lot worse,” says Jean. “Some people lost three or four days’ milk. We have a borehole, too, so we had water for the cattle. Some farmers had nothing to give their stock.
“We had one brief power-cut in the night, but at least the electricity didn’t go off for any longer. Besides, we’re fortunate on a farm,
we can always hook up a generator to a tractor. Everyone was worried about the electricity sub-station – if that had gone down, half a million people might have been affected.”
Now, the mains water is back on but, because the water treatment plant at Tewkesbury was flooded, it could be weeks before it’s safe to drink. “At least we’ve got it for baths, sanitation and washing clothes,” says Jean. “It’s been hectic; I haven’t sat down for weeks, but you’ve got to stay positive.”
The crisis, they say, has at least brought people together. “There was a lot of community spirit. Everybody helped everybody else,
knocking on doors and checking neighbours were OK. People arrived with wheelbarrows and delivered bottled water to the old folk.
“At least water didn’t get into the house. You drive around here and see skips full of furniture. It’s tragic. There’s always someone worse off than you.”
Right now, they have no idea how much it will cost them in financial terms. At last, though, the cows – which were in for five or six
days, unprecedented at this time of year – are out again now. “If the weather gets better, a lot of the combinable crops will be OK,
but ground conditions are too wet to even get on the land,” says Mike.
“We’ll ride the storm, but some farmers simply aren’t going to survive. And others, like after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, will change direction because of this. Lots of people will go out of dairying, because of the feed situation. “We know what flooding is about, we’re no strangers to it. But this was worse than we’d ever known. “The 1947 flood has been the benchmark up until now. Everyone used to talk about the ’47. Now it’ll be the 2007.”
In the end Celia’s wedding went ahead, although the site of the marquee had to be moved, brought up from the field where it was going to be onto higher ground in the garden. “We went for Plan B – or maybe that should be Plan C,” laughs Jean.
It was a wonderful day, too. “We walked to the church and back from it in sunshine, although it did rain
in the evening. Not that anyone minded. They were dancing in their wellies.”
The happy couple went off on their honeymoon to the Lake District and the Highlands. “I wonder if it was raining there when they arrived,” Jean muses.