Silence of the lambs

I apologise up front for the title of this post, but it aptly describes the impact of this snowy spring on Britain’s hill farms. The point of this post is to show the severity of this weather event.  As the South East of Britain escaped the worst of the snow, it is really the lack of Spring-like temperatures that have made the news, but for many areas in the northwest this has been comparable to the notorious Winters of 1947 and 1962/63, and the effect on livestock, particularly sheep in-lamb, has been devastating.


Source: Daily Mail

It all started late on Thursday 21st March when a band of rain moved diagonally across Ireland from the Southwest, turning to sleet and snow as it hit the cold air over Britain.  You can see the areas affected from this intensity map.


Snow intensity 0n March 22nd 2013.  Source: Met Office/BBC

On low ground the sleety mix started to lie readily and the wind drove the the wet snow horizontally, making it some of the dirtiest weather I can remember as far back as the 1970s. Setting foot outside resulted in a ‘sandblasting’ by the icy mix. Even after it turned to wet snow, as a result of continuous melting, accumulations were small; after 24 hours we had about 4 inches of slushy wet snow. At the time I did think we were saved by the temperature.  One or two degrees lower – dry fluffy snow lying from the start – and we’d have been buried at low levels.

On high ground it was a different matter. There were reports of drifts – 5ft, 10ft, 15ft, even 30ft – across the country.  Islands were not exempt.  It took a week for all homes on the Scottish island of Arran to have power restored, and the Isle of Man experienced the worst snow since 1963.

Isle of Man – snowfall created drifts of up to 20 meters. Source: BBC News

A friend who lives on the Antrim Plateau in Northern Ireland tells me they were cut off for days and those who (eventually) came to their rescue could only dig tunnels in the drifts; there was no access initially for mechanical snow clearing equipment. Older people with long memories are saying it is worse than 1962/63. And here we are two weeks on; winter still lingers in the hills.  If you care to peer at this satellite photo taken on April 3rd, you can distinguish snow from cloud in Scotland, Wales and Northern England quite readily if you have some familiarity with the geography:

3 april satellite

From Irish Weather Online (h/t David Spurgeon via Facebook). A view of Ireland and Britain from space at 1pm on Wednesday, 3 April 2013. Snowcover in the Wicklow Mountains (Ireland) and Ulster (Northern Ireland) is clearly visible. Image NASA/MODIS

It’s the combination of snow depth and prolonged cold/lack of melting that has been such a challenge. In Wales, lambs were found ‘frozen to the ground’ under the snow:

“With the massive snowfall and winds, it’s just been horrendous.”

The sheep are trapped under the drifts, some of which are 15ft in some places. We’ve dug 70 out in the last three days.”Some lambs have been born frozen to the ground. It’s heartbreaking.”

From Cumbria – Whitehaven News:

As the thaw continues, farmers are discovering heartbreaking numbers of animals which have succumbed to the nightmare conditions on the fells.

Losses are such that for some of the county’s rare sheep breeds, the battle for survival is likely to be as great as it was in the aftermath of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

In Scotland one farmer found sheep in a drift alive after being buried for eleven days (link with video):

Farmer Stuart Mactier was using a digger to recover sheep buried in a huge snow drift on his farm near Newton Stewart when he realised that some of the animals were still alive.

Footage shows some of the sheep moving their heads around with their bodies still under the snow.

The sheep had survived being buried in the 10ft snow drift for 11 days. It is thought that they survived after breathing through air holes in the snow.

Donald O’Reilly (R) searches for sheep trapped in snow drifts on his farm in the Aughafatten area of Co. Antrim Northern Ireland March 26 2013. Source: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Overall, conditions for sheep farmers are being described as the worst for fifty years.

It has been surprising too how much of the snow has hung around at low levels. Even the four to six inches of slushy snow we did get, dried out and froze, but over the 10 day period it took to disappear, it sublimed as much as melted – the moisture whipped away by the biting wind.  Dirty piles of snow on the dry roads looked more like those in the approaches to a ski resort than Britain; despite longer days in and warm sunshine in March, the snow has stayed, and this year has been exceptional in that regard.

How does 2013 compare with previous harsh winters in the UK?

From The Telegraph:

The Met Office confirmed on Tuesday that the average UK temperature in March was just 2.2C, making it the coldest since 1962 (1.9C) and the joint-second coldest since records began in 1910.

Temperatures were 3.3C below the monthly average of 5.5C, and the weather was also drier than average with just 62.1mm of rain against an average of 95.1mm.

The past month’s freezing conditions have been largely due to high pressure which allowed cold, dry air to sweep across Britain from the east, but milder and more unsettled conditions should begin to move in towards the end of the week.

A description of ‘the big ones’ from The History of British Winters

1946-47: The year you’ve most probably been waiting for! One of the snowiest winters to date, probably the worst since 1814 (see part 5). Snow fell on the 19th December in Southern England. Then there was a notable mild spell, extremely mild in parts, with 14c being reached by day. Then from the 22nd January, it began! There was continuous snow cover from this date, right up till 17th March! Late January saw 7 inches of snow in South West England and the Scilly Isles (unusual). Early February saw the turn of the Midlands (Southern) and East Anglia, while Northern England, North Wales and Eastern Scotland saw snow in late February. In early March there was a blizzard in England and Wales, with 1ft widely, and 5ft accumulated on the hills! 12th March saw snow for the Border Country. 1946-47 was strange, because it started up late, and lasted a long time.

1961-62: The year proceeding the ‘big’ one. Snow in the Christmas week, widespread with London and the South East seeing 6 inches (very similar to last year). Early January in the Midlands saw 14 inches of snow. Snow in March also, especially Scotland, but 10 inches recorded in Jersey! Average.

1962-63: A famous winter.Very cold. Mid November saw snow in the South West. Late December (commencing Boxing Day: the start of the bitter cold) saw blizzards in Southern England. London had 12 inches of drifting snow. January and February had widespread falls, especially Devon and North East England with 2ft. Very Snowy. My mum, 12 at the time, and dad, 11, keep telling me stories of how long they were away from school for. The snow in Hampshire was supposedly as deep as the hedgerows were high! People managed to walk on the tops of the frozen shrubbery, rather than risk driving through the deep snow! An amazing winter.

The brutal year that was 1963 lives on in memories, but the cold and snow gave way to warmer temperatures by March.  In contrast, although 1962 was not as bad overall, snow and cold came late, in March. This year, from 22nd March, has been much colder:

March TemperaturesHowever, let’s not end on a gloomy note.  The ski resorts in Scotland have snow cover that would have been the envy of many European areas at any in the more usual snow-poor years of the last two decades:

Yesterday was a fantastically clear day for a walk.  On finding shelter from the cold wind, the sun warmed our backs, but still the snow clings in places.  From higher ground the views to the still snow-scarred hills were fabulous.  Photos in other blogs of the lingering snow in The Peak District, and Northern Ireland – Antrim and the Mourne Mountains here and here:

“This is the Mourne Wall which is about 5ft high just before the final climb to the top of Donard – I have never seen the snow this deep here before – the wall is just about visible -normally you have to climb up 5 or 6 steps on the style to get over the other side of the wall, but the snow was so deep you could just walk over the top!”  Source: “SnowJon” from TWO Photography Forum.

And the good news is that temperatures are expected to reach double figures (12C/54F) by Tuesday of next week (9th April).

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15 Responses to Silence of the lambs

  1. ArndB says:

    The Weather Channel: Monthly Outlook for April 2013:
    Sea temperatures are now several degrees below normal, especially the North Sea, with temperatures as we enter April between 2C near Denmark to 5C along the east coast of Britain. These low temperatures will undoubtedly have an impact on the Spring temperatures, and perhaps at times even early summer in eastern Britain when winds come from the east.

  2. we didnt have any snow at all in our part of the South west coast, but living next to the ocean I can testify on the very cold sea temperatures. When we first came here around 2000 I would reckon that the first frosts would strike in February due to the warmth of the sea. The last five years the sea temperature seems to have had little effect in mitigating frosts as they can occur in November. Still, the fact we have had no snow presumably means they still have some effect although day time temperatutres here tend to be a degree or two above the rest of the country mostly because of the cloud/westerlly winds rather than the sea temperature.


  3. ArndB says:

    Hi Tony
    A recent ITV air pressure map of 26/Mar ( ) shows nicely why SW UK was not well served with snow, differently from the NE.
    What is fascinating about this cold spring is that it is almost impossible that human activities in the Baltic and North Sea, for example off-shore platforms & wind farms, shipping, fishing etc. have not contributed to some extent, and that opponents of AGW (called sceptics) do not take the advantage to raise many questions toward those who think climate warming is made by CO2 and causes climatic changes. A number of relevant March 2013 information is at:
    A fine spring soon and best regards

  4. Bloke down the pub says:

    My fava beans aren’t doing much yet so I won’t have anything to go with the cianti. I was born at home in the winter of 61/2 with snow piled up in the road outside. Story goes that when mother woke my old man to tell him her waters had broken, he told her he’d call a plumber in the morning and went back to sleep.

    • Verity Jones says:

      My husband was also born at home in a blizzard in ’62 – couldn’t get to the hospital due to the snow.

      Friends in Ireland reckon to plant their potatoes on or before St Patrick’s Day (17th March), but not this year.

  5. argylesock says:

    Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… Yes, it’s bad. Here in Yorkshire I’ve seen snow drifting on the wind, this year, for the first time in my 45-year life. As for the ‘Big One’ of 1946, a baby born into that near here (in a farmhouse without electricity) got pneumonia and the vicar heroically rode over the snow on horseback to say the Last Rites. The baby never grew big but here she is beside me now. Anyway, thank you for telling the story of the snow. I fear for our farmers.

    Reply – life does hang in there, but this year it’s not just the weakest that are struggling. It bothers me extremely that farming – that very human scale industry – is so overlooked by so many of us in this country. V.

  6. I’ve ventured out into the garden as the bitter easterly wind has dropped.

    We seem to have fared better than most other counties here in Devon.. Not only did the snow miss us but the geraniums and fuschias which we leave over the winter in their summer beds seem to have just clung on. Several more of our succulents have been destroyed, but on the whole most things have survived.

    I re-read the gardening book I got that was published in the 1940’s which describes home counties planting conditions in the 1930’s and 1940’s. There seems very little difference between that era and the warmth we enjoyed for 5 or 10 years in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Certainly we couldn’t grow over the last 5 years what was common place back then

  7. Tony says:

    Thanks for this, a most interesting read. I have a personal interest in this climate change madness and like to follow its effects on nature and the wider environment. Should you wish to read more, my blog can be found at

    • Verity Jones says:

      Thanks Tony. Your site is an interesting read – it is definitely worth keeping such records.

      When I was a child I grew strawberries, and would always reckon on the first ripe strawberry in the last few days of June (in the late 70s). Now my daughter looks for our strawberries in early-to mid-June. We probably live in a different microclimate (different part of the city) and I can’t be sure of the varieties, but for years I have taken mental note of whether plants are early or late flowering.

      It is certainly strange to have daffodils only starting to bloom in April as is the case this year.

      • Tony says:

        Yes the times are certainly a-changing. How the wildlife adapts to such things is a particular fascination of mine. Thanks for your kind words.

  8. Pingback: SILENT SPRING | Sunrise's Swansong

  9. Verity

    In my gardening book is this reference to Francis Bacon,_Bacon,_1902.djvu/20

    He wrote this book in 1625 and what strikes me is once again the similarity of seasons then compared to the warm period that seemed to have ended 5 or 10 years ago here in the UK

    As you know I reconstructed CET to 1538 and discovered this unexpected hump around the time Bacon was writing.

    In a yet to be published article I noted;

    .’….more accurately we should observe that the ‘direction of travel’ of temperatures, when combined and constrained by historic records, shows that at several points from 1538 there are similarities to the modern era as regards warm periods. (1538 for several decades and a decade either side of around 1630/40) Note ‘extraordinary European heatwave in 1616.”

    This warm period can be seen in my graph here.

    As I search back through the contemporary records the evidence of periods around as warm as today seems to increase.

  10. Mike Mellor says:

    In conditions like these, why don’t the idiot farmers bring the livestock under shelter? It’s plain animal cruelty and bad business sense as well. Idiots.

    • Verity Jones says:

      This was a ‘once in a generation’ event for the areas that were hit. It was much much worse than forecast. The sheep would have been fine in 1 or 2ft drifts, but this brought drifts of 10ft+ and lasted for >24 hours. This is not usual here. Most farmers will have tried to bring their flocks in but a flock could be scattered over a wide area in rough terrain.

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