Arable Matters by Brian Henderson

Now there’s no denying that weather forecasts play a pretty key role in planning the day’s work in just about every sector of Scottish farming.

And it has to be accepted that the daily predictions have long attained compulsory viewing status at critical points in the calendar – during harvest and drilling time, hay and silage making – and, if we were being perfectly honest, pretty much any other time of the year.

But while we rely on these meteorological prognostications to guide our working lives, I did find my hackles rising a bit when I heard the news that they are set to rule them as well.

For while it might have slipped everyone’s notice a wee bit, the forecasts are set to play a regulatory role in key arable and grassland operations – and we’ll need to get an all clear from the forecasters before we go spreading fertilisers, be it out of the bag, the dung midden or the slurry pit.

I guess the good news, such as it is, is that while our friends over at the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) who drew up the proposals wanted to ban us from spreading fertiliser if heavy rain had been forecast within 48 hours of doing the job, NFUS has managed to get this knocked back to 24 hours.

The changes are included in the 59-page updated Controlled Activities Regulations (CAR) relating to activities that could affect the water environment which were published last week – but I’d have to admit that they’re somewhat buried in the General Binding Rule (GBR) 18 section on the storage and application of fertilisers.

But this sort of approach throws up a whole host of questions – not the least of which is what sort of numpties do SEPA think we are that we would want to spread expensive fertiliser on our fields when there was a fair chance of it getting washed away anyway? I mean come on boys, give us some credit.

True, there might be occasion when growers in a rush to get the job done might get caught out – but that usually only happens when those predicting the weather have given us duff information anyway.

Which brings us on to the forecasts themselves.

While we might all have our own secret reasons for watching Judith, Kawser, Gillian or even Christopher on a nightly basis, it’s often as much for entertainment, sometimes fuelled by a morbid sense of curiosity as to how wildly inaccurate their forecasts might be, as it is for any coldly calculated accuracy of the forecast.

Now I’ve no doubt that the statistics show that forecast for the following day are actually reasonably accurate, but anyone whose memory stretches back as far as last year’s harvest will know, they go swiftly downhill after that.

But the wooliness of the predictions – both in terms of actual rainfall and where it will land – leaves loads of room for dozens of different interpretations of what the weather is going to be, even the next day. As many also discovered last harvest, while it can be pouring down at home, it can remain bone dry less than a mile away.

What constitutes heavy rain? Has there ever been a forecaster brave enough to tell you exactly how many mm of rainfall you will get the next day. No siree – the main forecasts are certainly couched in terms of 'make sure you take a raincoat' or 'if your garden’s looking a bit dry then it’ll get a drink tomorrow' and other terms which would probably leave a lot of room for argument were it ever to come to a court of law.

Which brings us nicely on to asking just how would such a regulation be policed?

Will there be armies of inspectors travelling around the countryside every time a spell of rain is forecast? Will they join you at the tea-table to watch the forecast and then test you to make sure you’ve been paying attention? Will they come out to see if the sheep have been jumping, the cows lying under trees, the swallows flying low or if the hue of the evening sky dictates that the shepherd is due his share of delight?

Which raises another question – according to which forecast? Now I don’t know what the rest of the farming population is like, but when I’m on the internet, if the BBC forecast doesn’t look too good – or, if I’m honest, even if it says it will be great – I click on to at least another two or three weather sites to see what they’re saying, then go out, tap the barometer, feel the piece of seaweed at the back door and ask my brother how his lumbago’s doing.

Needless to say it’s seldom that any of them agree – and almost unheard of for them all to be singing the same song. Sometimes some of the websites (and other methods) are more accurate than others – but this never turns out to be on a consistent basis.

But perhaps I’m being unfair in concentrating too much on this one aspect of what is a long and highly technical document produced by SEPA – and there are several other changes to the regulations which it might pay to be aware of.

I’m even told that there are some bits and pieces in there that might make life a little bit easier. Apparently, providing you follow the rules, if you want to make use of those days when rain is forecast and you can’t spread fertilisers, you can busy yourself by using trees or parts of trees to avoid flooding from rivers, burns or ditches – without having to either apply or pay for a licence!

Good news from SEPA – now who would have forecast that?