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