EXTREME weather is already harming UK agriculture – but many farmers have yet to prioritise adapting to the effects of climate change.

Newly published research based on farmers interviews found that everyone who took part said that they had experienced or witnessed issues caused by extreme weather, such as heavy rain or prolonged dry spells, in recent years, and expected these to intensify further.

Many were concerned about the impact of heat and drought on crop and grass growth, with knock-on impacts for yield and winter animal feed, and the implications of heavy rainfall/flooding for soil run-off and erosion and for field operations such as drilling and harvesting.

But for some of these farmers, the ongoing changes to the weather were seen as too uncertain and too long-term for them to invest significant time or money in planning for them now,

The study, carried out by Dr Rebecca Wheeler and Professor Matt Lobley from the University of Exeter, in partnership with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Rothamsted Research and Lancaster University, concluded that many farmers were too focused on short-term profitability and business survival to pay much heed to long-term climate threats.

Although there was 'growing acceptance' that the climate is changing and that there are benefits to taking action, uncertainties about the exact scale, speed and nature of change make it difficult for farmers to plan ahead.

The research was based on 31 in-depth interviews, 15 with farmers and 16 with stakeholders including advisors, consultants and industry representatives.

A number of the agricultural stakeholders said they were concerned that too few farm businesses wee taking sufficient action to increase their business resilience to extreme weather and climate change.

Some farmers 'hadn’t got around' to certain measures they would like to undertake, whilst others were 'concentrating on the short term'.

Dr Wheeler said: “Farmers have an array of challenges and uncertainties to cope with, and it is understandable they are focused on the short-term profitability and survival of their business. This seems to be preventing them from adapting to the effects of the climate emergency. It is essential the industry finds ways to build resilience, and that farm businesses are supported in planning and responding to changing weather patterns.”

More positively, the research also highlighted the capacity for innovation and adaptability within the farming industry. Many farmers are building resilience within their business through actions to improve soil health, which as well as raising productivity and storing carbon, also increases the ability for grass and crops to cope with weather extremes. There is also reason for farmers to be optimistic about some of the opportunities posed by climate change, such as warmer temperatures enabling new crops and increased yields in some instances – as long as they are able to ‘weather’ the challenges posed by negative effects.

As well as improving soil health, positive actions taken by farmers in the research to future-proof their business included continuous evaluation of crop/grass varieties and growing techniques, installing additional livestock housing with good ventilation, increasing rainwater storage capacity, and risk-spreading through expanding the diversity of their crops and enterprises.

Professor Lobley said: “There are many innovative and exciting activities happening on farms across the country, but much is still to be done to improve the resilience of individual farms and the industry as a whole.

“Few farmers described themselves as directly adapting to climate change but most did see themselves as taking positive steps to respond to the risks of extreme weather or to generally improve their business resilience. For a number of farmers this primarily took the form of improving soil health.”