'Everywhere growth has stopped. Up on the plateau the biscuit- coloured vistas look more like Africa than England'

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The Independent Online
Stress is something normally associated with city life but now, with every day that the drought persists, it is becoming increasingly noticeable in the countryside. Around us it is the beech trees that are most obviously in trouble. Never mind that last winter was the wettest for years: those life-giving rains have long since drained down into the underground strata, leaving the surface of the ground desperately dry.

The beeches' response has been to produce immense crops of mast, or seed; and the whiskery little husks, festooning the branches in thousands, have given the trees a sickly, brownish appearance. According to a forester friend, this terrific output is a genetic reaction to emergency: sensing possible extinction, the trees are doing all they can to propagate their genes in future generations.

In fact, most will probably survive - but on some the leaves are already turning to autumnal copper and gold, two months ahead of schedule. Again, this is a crisis response: the sooner a tree can shed its leaves, the less water it needs to survive. The only real loss is that of its annual growth, which this year will be minimal.

In the great heat, woods have been consistently cooler than sun-baked fields, yet even in the shade of their canopy, the ground vegetation has withered and died in a way I have never seen before. Streams are still running, but only just, and all the higher springs have ceased to flow.

In many forest areas the danger of fire is now acute. Forestry Commission staff are on standby over the weekend and, to reduce the risk of accidental blazes, large areas of the Forest of Dean have been closed to the public altogether.

With the farmland baked as hard as concrete, earthworms cannot come to the surface and this has forced a change of diet on badgers. When their staple food was cut off, they no doubt switched for a while to wheat; but that, too, has gone, harvested in record time, and Brock is reduced to a diet of insects and wasp larvae, both luckily abundant. In a normal year, badgers would be moving on to fruit but here, too, they are going to be short: blackberries are ripe already, but small and hard as bullets, and elderberries look as if they are going to shrivel away without ever maturing. Moles and hedgehogs, which also feed on worms, are having a similarly hard time.

Predators such as foxes, stoats and buzzards, on the other hand, are having a bonanza - not because of the fine weather, but because the seasonal upsurge of myxomatosis, which breaks out every August, is rendering rabbits slow, stupid and easily caught.

Grassland is in a sorry state: our own fields, on the north-facing slope of a valley, retain tinges of green but up on the plateau the tawny, biscuit- coloured vistas look more like Africa than England. Everywhere, growth has stopped dead. Our neighbouring dairy farmer was hoping for a second cut of hay off 35 acres, but already his cows have eaten that grass - and if rain does not come within the next couple of weeks, he will have to start feeding his precious hay.

Because of the dearth of fodder, there is every sign that during the winter the price of hay will rise to unprecedented heights. Last year, its maximum in our area was just over pounds 2 for a traditional small bale. Now, already, it is pounds 3-pounds 4. Merchants pre-dict that it will reach pounds 6-pounds 8 by Christmas - and if that happens, many horse-owners are going to be in trouble.

Farmers complain that the ground is so dry and hard that it is wearing away their ploughshares in record time. Crops of broad beans have withered on the stalk and are scarcely worth harvesting. But, as always, there are compensations. Barley and wheat have yielded surprisingly well, and growers have saved up to pounds 10 a ton from not having to dry the grain with electrically-generated heat. In the orchards, apple and pear trees are so heavily loaded that owners are having to prop up the boughs to stop them breaking under the weight.

Of course, everyone is asking one question. Is this summer a freak, or is it the shape of things to come? As a boy, I loved the story of how, whenever the vicar prayed for rain, the gaffer in the side pew always piped up, "Arrr, but you won't get 'ee till the wind do go in the west."

It is alarming to sense that the time for such comfortable old adages has gone. The wind blows hot from north, south, east and west, and still no rain comes to our relief.