Farmers warn of ruined crops and food shortages

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The Independent Online

Farmers are likely to lose hundreds of millions of pounds worth of crops, potentially leading to food shortages in the shops, because of the bad weather, farmers' leaders warned last night.

Farmers are likely to lose hundreds of millions of pounds worth of crops, potentially leading to food shortages in the shops, because of the bad weather, farmers' leaders warned last night.

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers Union, said the heavy rain and devastating flooding this autumn have severely hit winter cereal crops, cereal harvesting and autumn and winter vegetable crops.

It was too early to estimate what acreage of crops had been inundated by the flooded rivers which have hit prime farming land across southern England, the Midlands and Yorkshire, or their total value. But the damage to cereal crops alone, he estimated, could cost farmers £300m because yields may fall by up to 5 million tonnes. The cost of lost potato crops could run to more than £50m, with sugar beet factories closing down because their supplies are running short.

In some regions, shops could run out of British-grown potatoes and winter vegetables such as cauliflowers, cabbages and parsnips next year. Straw stocks to feed animals evacuated from flooding were running low, and freshly sown winter cereal seeds across the country were being killed off by the floods.

In many parts of the country, the amount of cereal sown was down by a third because of the flooding and rain. Fuel bills for drying damp cereals were also much higher than normal. "You can easily put the current damage running to hundreds of millions of pounds in lost income at a time when the industry can't afford to lose it," Mr Gill said. "The industry is already in crisis ... This is the proverbial last straw of desperation."

He said the industry had had problems from August onwards with unseasonably heavy rain, but the repeated deluges over the past five days, and the storms in southern England three weeks ago had deepened the crisis. "Farmers are used to dealing with the weather, it's our way of life, but we've never, ever experienced such an onslaught from the weather as this," he said.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals warned yesterday that it is investigating alleged mistreatment of cattle and sheep by farmers who failed to react to the flood warnings last week by moving their livestock to safety. The RSPCA confirmed that more than 100 cattle, sheep and chickens were drowned or killed by exposure in separate incidents in the South-west and Midlands. In two cases, up to 30 sheep and 20 cattle drowned on farms near Exeter and nine cattle rescued from rising floods died of shock and exposure.

"At this stage, our priority is with the rescue of animals but if it does emerge that people had lots of warning and failed to take action, we would consider that very seriously. The law does exist that anyone who exposes their animals to unnecessary suffering can be prosecuted," an RSPCA spokeswoman said.

One of the largest insurance companies for farmers, NFU Mutual, said it expected claims from the latest storms and floods to reach £10m. The claims covered mainly damaged buildings, rural shops, homes, farming equipment and pedigree livestock, since crops were very rarely insured. A spokesman added, however, that the bill was not likely to match the damage caused by the storms in 1987 and 1990, which cost his firm £30m and £70m respectively.

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