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The Dales in winter: dangers and delights for country folk

Friday 15 October 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard ruminates on reports that we are facing a severe winter for the first time in decades - and parts of him hope it is true
A harsh winter in the Dales?

I WAS a small boy in the winter of 1946-47, the worst of the 20th Century, which devastated large areas of the Yorkshire Dales. Tens of thousands of sheep and other livestock died under snowdrifts up to 20 feet deep, not a few farmers went bankrupt, and too many country folk died prematurely for pneumonia, bronchitis or flu exacerbated by the intense cold.

Yet I remember that winter with intense delight. The snow lay deep and thick and even from Boxing Day until mid-spring and my mates and I spent it sledging, skating and snowballing.

We cut ourselves vaulting poles and, as we got braver, would deliberately launch ourselves into the deeper drifts, sometimes disappearing completely. Every morning, I woke up to the sun twinkling through the intricate patterns painted by Jack Frost on the inside of my bedroom window.

These memories were brought back to me this week by a row that erupted in the national press between a private weather forecasting company, which says we are in for another rare harsh winter, and the boffins at the Met. Office, who say such claims are all tosh - no-one can forecast that far ahead.

But it so happens that this private company, Metcheck.com, said in spring that we were going to have a lousy, washed-out summer. The Met. Office pooh-poohed that too - and guess who proved to be right?

As I write this, the autumn sun is shining through my windows and reflecting in the screen of my computer so brightly that I can barely see to work. And I should have been out casting a fly for a salmon - but didn't go because, two days ago, the Met. Office was broadcasting a terrible weekend.

Now I have written before about the disastrous effects bad weather forecasts can have on the tourist industry in the Dales and the Lake District. But, for once, let's assume that the bright boys at Metcheck have got it right again and ask: what price a harsh winter in the 21st Century?

As a gardener, I shall be delighted. For many years now, slugs have continued to breed all year round, reeking havoc with the few vegetables standing through winter in the veg patch: leeks, Brussels, winter cabbage and even the early broad beans when they first push through in February.

My wife will be pleased, too, because her early flowering plants will not be attacked by aphids as early as late January. It would give the local wildlife a bit of a rest too: mallards and the unlamented magpies in my allotment hedgerow have started breeding as early as February in recent years, sometimes to produce broods which died in late snaps of cold or wet weather in March.

For the farmers, a harsh winter is another matter. However, I don't think that there will ever be another repeat of 1947, when conditions were made much worse by striking miners who - to use the phrase current at the time - "held the country to ransom" when most heating systems, including open fires, were based on coal.

Now, most farms are heated by oil and wise rural families should be topping up their tanks. There tend to be fewer sheep on the high fells these days and most are moved to the valley bottoms by now. The lucky ones are kept indoors just before they start lambing.

Most country lanes are cleared, too, to allow the milk tankers to get through. And the huge popularity of the 4 x 4 means that many country folk now have vehicles able to cope with all but the worst conditions (unlike the Chelsea tractors, as urban-based 4 x 4s used only on the school have been dubbed).

With the possible exception of North Yorkshire County Council, which a couple of years ago ran out of salt to clear winter roads after just one bad day, and the dead cert. bet that the railways will meet the wrong kind of snow, most of us should be reasonably well prepared.

If so, let's look forward to some snow to make Christmas cards out of our gorgeous scenery, some harsh frosts so that the grass crunches under our feet on a brisk walk in the gold brilliance of winter sunshine. Assuming, of course, that the Metcheck boys have got it right again...

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