Am Bratach No. 322
August 2018

Burnt fields and empty rivers after driest summer in over forty years

The dry summer has been biting hard at two important sectors of the Highland economy, with woefully low catch figures on lochs and rivers across the north, while crofters and farmers have struggled to get enough bulk into their silage crop.

For those who depend on these things, the outlook looks serious, particularly in the fragile agricultural sector. Martin Mackay, township clerk in Durine, Durness, said: “It’s as dry as I’ve seen it for a long, long time. It’s very unusual, especially for this late in the summer. It’s quite a worry.”

With the first lamb sale at Lairg just around the corner on August 14, Mr Mackay fears that time is running out. “It’ll not take long going round, and the grass’ll not come that quick,” he said. “It’s serious in that it’s widespread. Usually, some places would be getting rain, and there would be grass somewhere, but it seems that down Aberdeenshire way is as bad as any, and that’s where most of our lambs go to.”

Mr Mackay added that the poor growth this summer meant that they would not be taking silage off some of their fields. “We usually bale wrap silage, but there’ll be one or two fields that we’ll not manage,” he said. “We’ll just have to graze them down. We had a bit of rain yesterday morning, which freshened things up, but that’s all it did.” Buying in fodder to make up the shortfall is expensive, particularly when transport costs are factored in, and costs per bale likely to be at a premium due to widespread shortages.

At Armadale Farm, Joyce Campbell said that the warm dry sunshine had been welcome in many ways, but that rain was badly needed across the country. “It’s been a challenging summer to keep enough grass in front of the ewes with twins and the cattle,” she said. “The flip side of this exceptionally dry, warm spell is that the hill, where the ewes with singles spend the summer, has really flourished in the balmy conditions. The lambs have done well, but we’ve had to be on the ball to make sure they all have plenty of water as many of the burns have dried up. This has meant in some cases having to physically transport water to the grazing areas and that’s something we don’t have to do very often in Scotland.”

Ms Campbell added: “The lighter land has burnt up very quickly and winter fodder supplies of hay and silage, although of good quality, are looking tight and very much down on previous years. The bits of rain which a few in the north have enjoyed has certainly helped and hopefully this will spread further south to ease the drought down there. We are just coming into the start of the annual store lamb sales and you can’t but think that many of these lamb buyers will not be too keen to take on extra mouths to feed when they simply don’t have grass for them. There is rain on the forecast so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that will give everyone who has been feeling the strain a break.”

Salmon and trout fishing has also been badly affected by the dry summer. Richard Wright, water bailiff on the River Naver, said that the river had been fortunate in avoiding any serious mortality of fish so far. However, he acknowledged that concerns remained as to the health of fish stocks in the rivers. “With low water conditions, there are higher water temperatures, and low flow,” he explained. “Fish will succumb to it. I’ve heard reports from other rivers that they’ve been having issues with a fungal disease which fish get if they’ve been handled or if they’re in the river rubbing against each other.”

As might be expected, catches on the Naver are well down this year. “They’re dramatically reduced in comparison to what they should be for this time of year,” Mr Wright said. “As far as I know, we’re the lowest we’ve ever been here in forty-six years. That’s what I’ve been told, going by the SEPA gauge. Locals that have lived here all their lives reckon that it’s the lowest they’ve ever seen it.”

Sporting Lets, a Perth-based subsidiary of land agents CKD Galbraith, deals with salmon and trout fishing for many estates and rivers in the north-west. These include the Inver and Kirkaig rivers, as well as Anders Holch Povlsen’s Hope, Ben Loyal and Kinloch estates. Mungo Ingleby, an associate with the agency, described the situation as “desperately depressing”. He explained: “All the rivers of Sutherland are what we call spate rivers, so they fish best when there is rain, and the fish need a certain amount of water in the river to be able to come out of the sea and run up the river. This year, there really hasn’t been any meaningful rain since April. As a result of that, the opportunities to fish are very limited. Catches fall off a cliff, and fishing effort falls off a cliff. It’s got to a stage when the rivers are so low and they have been so low for so long that the salmon fishermen aren’t really bothering to come any more.”

This has had a wider effect on the sporting economy. “It has a knock-on effect right through,” Mr Ingleby said. “The hotels, the ghillies, ourselves, the owners, and fishermen who have booked things. There’s no prospect of being able to fish, so they don’t come, they don’t stay in the lodges, they don’t stay in the hotels, they don’t stay spending money in the bars. That’s really been the case since the middle of May. Fishing has effectively ceased on all the rivers of Sutherland, apart from the Helmsdale, because it’s able to keep up a certain flow of water due to the dam at Badenloch.”

Brown trout fishing has been similarly affected. “Fishing for trout is best when it’s overcast and flies hatch,” said Mr Ingleby. “They need the water temperature to be under a certain level, as do salmon. The trout are going to the bottom because they’re trying to avoid the hot water on the surface; trout fishermen have to fish at night. Basically, the long and the short of it is, it’s been an absolute disaster of a year for fishing.”

As on the Naver, Mr Ingleby is cautious about assessing the long-term impact of the drought on fish stocks. “The one small positive thing is that because the drought’s been going on for so long, there aren’t a huge amount of fish in the rivers,” he said. “ If they get in the wrong place and the water gets too warm, there will be deaths, but at the moment, there haven’t been any widespread incidents. There are fish in the sea, and the first time it rains, they will run. It’s Scotland, it will rain again: of that you can be sure.”

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