Their land parched and their crops blasted by the heat, Europe's farmers appealed yesterday to the European Union for special concessions to alleviate the effects of one of the most extreme summers in recent years. European officials are expected to approve a dispensation today to allow cattle, sheep and goats to graze on land which is normally barred from use. Farmers have asked for the exemption because the heatwave has scorched land on which millions of animals rely.
To help avert a growing shortage of animal feed, farmers will gain the right to use so-called "set-aside" land for grazing. That means suspending an EU rule that states 10 per cent of land should be left fallow until 31 August, introduced into the Common Agricultural Policy 1992 to prevent over-production.
EU officials recognise that farmers are having to use silage normally kept for the winter to keep herds alive. And, with the heatwave set to continue, animal feed growing on set-aside areas would dry up by September rendering it useless.
The European Commission confirmed yesterday that France, Germany, Spain, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Luxembourg have asked to use their set-aside land to feed their animals for the first time since 2003. That is likely to be approved by officials from the 25 member states today, though farmers will not be allowed to use the land for commercial benefit. In Britain, the National Farmers Union has lobbied the Government to follow suit though no decision has been taken.
"These are some of the most extreme conditions we've seen for years and they're causing our farmers real problems," said Mariann Fischer Boel, the EU commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. "A number of governments have come to us asking for help. I think it's only right for us to be flexible and adopt exceptional measures for these exceptional circumstances."
Franz-Josef Feiter, the secretary general of COPA-COGECA, which represents 15 million farmers and 40,000 co-operatives in the EU, said the weather has caused problems in almost all agricultural sectors. He said: "There is not enough rain and it is too hot in Europe where plants are not made for this.
"Because of the drought there will probably be quite a significant reduction in the harvest and also for fodder, especially in areas with lighter or sandy soil where the capacity to retain water is nearly zero." Hay and silage is usually cut three times a year, in May, July or August and in the autumn. This year very few farmers have managed a second cut.
Mr Feiter said: "This will have an impact on their revenues. The biggest problem is that they are using silage normally kept for the winter to feed animals now."
European shops and supermarkets may suffer a shortage of vegetables later this years, an industry group warned yesterday. According to OEITFL, which represents Europe's fruit and vegetable processing industry, shop owners must prepare for empty shelves, fridges and freezers.Reuse content