Environment: Warmer weather may bring colour to farmers' fields

Click to follow
The expected rise in Britain's summer and winter temperatures over the next 50 years could be accompanied by a visually explosive change in the landscape with fields of sunflowers and red clover. Stephen Goodwin reports from Oxford where farmers and scientists have been doing some crystal-ball gazing.

A farming conference entitled "The Real World" might attract a hollow laugh from critics who believe farmers are subsidy junkies with a disproportionate sway over government policy.

Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, yesterday once again tried to disabuse farmers of the idea that they are going to be given any more money to compensate for the rise in value of sterling against the European Union's green currency.

"The idea of an pounds 890m gift from Brussels is nonsense," he said, slapping down the National Farmers' Union demand for compensation in the opening session of the 52nd Oxford Farming Conference. At least 71 per cent of the money would have to come from the British taxpayer.

But farmers are going to have to adjust to a lot more than lower prices for their crops and livestock. By the middle of the next century Britain is expected to be between 1.2C and 1.6C warmer.

Professor Trevor Davies, director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, said the chances of a return of the very hot summer of 1995 would increase from one- in-90 years to one-in-three years. At Oxford, days over 25C would increase from 12 a year to about 20 by 2050, while frosty days would fall from 42 to 18.

More disturbing could be a water shortage. Stream flows could reduce by 30 per cent by 2020. More water will simply evaporate in the extra heat, but by far the biggest loss will be that sweated out by plants.

But on balance, it looks as if farmers could benefit.

Experts believe the combination of warmer summers and tougher varieties of crop introduced by plant breeders could add blocks of yellow sunflowers to the landscape of the South and East. The oil-rich plant is already moving north in France and could soon follow fields of blue linseed over the channel.

But the crops most likely to prosper from a rise in temperature are the potato and forage maize, grown for silage. Professor Christopher Pollock, research director at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (Iger) said computer modelling predicted central and even northern England would become suitable for growing early potatoes. However, main-crop potatoes might suffer in the drier summers.

Another dash of colour could be added to the countryside with red clover. It is protein-rich and one of the alternative forages Iger has been working on. "When you see your first field of that you will be blown away," said the professor.