One year on from the worst snowfall since 1963 buried much of the west of the Isle of Man in drifts up to four metres deep, the Manx farming community is still counting the cost.
During the night of Thursday, March 21, freezing conditions and gale force easterly winds caught the snow falling over the island’s hills and dropped it on to the sheltered western slopes and coastline.
The blizzard conditions continued through the day on Friday and snowdrifts covered the lower landscape, cutting off western communities from Kirk Michael to Dalby.
For the island’s farmers the snow came at the worst possible moment.
With the lambing season about to start in earnest, many pregnant ewes and newly born lambs were buried under feet of snow.
The staggering number of casulaties has been estimated at up to 15,000 sheep and lambs, around 12 per cent of the island’s stock, and around 1,000 cattle.
Up to 18 per cent of last year’s lambs were lost.
It’s been a long year of gradual recovery as farmers repair the damage, calculate their losses and work to replenish their stocks.
Stewart Howard, who farms at Moaney Moar at Cronk y Voddy, lost 140 in-lamb sheep and 30 cattle:
‘At the time I don’t think people outside the area realised the devastation it caused,’ he said.
‘It was probably the most depressing time of my life - you knew the sheep were in drifts but you couldn’t physically get around to them all.
‘The old boys who saw the snowfall in 1963 tell me that it was worse this time.
‘It wasn’t just the snow, but the fact that it took so long to melt. I was finding sheep in drifts two and three weeks afterwards, in places where I’d never go looking. There was still snow lying on the ground four weeks later.’
But the snowfall also brought out the best in the island’s community spirit through the volunteer workforces who came day after day to help rescue buried livestock, and from a monumental fundraising effort as individuals, companies, corporate bodies and organisations raised nearly £150,000 for the Isle of Man Agricultural Benevolent Trust by August 2013.
‘The support we had was amazing, especially from our friends and other farmers,’ added Mr Howard. ‘We all stuck together and got ourselves through it.’
The scale of the damage and losses forced him to make tough decisions about whether to carry on:
‘We’re still here, but if it happened again this year or next year I don’t think I’d continue, and lots of other farmers tell me the same thing. It’s not just the financial side, but the emotional side too – nobody likes seeing their stock lying dead.’
The Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture’s emergency grant scheme offered affected farmers financial relief, and to date more than half a million pounds has been paid to 186 applicants.
Trevor Quirk, of Corvalley farm near Peel, lost 127 in-lamb sheep under snow up to 15 feet deep. Their stock has now been replaced thanks to contributions from the government, the benevolent fund, and through investing their own money.
He said: ‘There didn’t seem to be any way of recovering at the time as we were about 300 lambs down on other years. It was a huge help to receive money from the BF and DEFA.’
While larger farms might absorb the lost revenue from an interrupted lambing season and can access other funds through the Farm and Horticultural Improvement Scheme (FHIS), for smaller operators the effects of the snow are still a day-to-day reality.
‘We’re still fighting,’ said Tracey Smith of Greengate farm, near Glen Mooar, who was forced to take a part-time job to cover their losses.
She estimates that a stock of 110 to 115 sheep would have enabled them to qualify for FHIS, a number they were painfully close to before the snow hit. ‘This time last year we had 90 ewes that were all pregnant,’ she said.
‘This year we have 65, so we have lost about a third of our stock.
‘We received money from the benevolent trust, but it didn’t cover repairs to the fencing and feeding the livestock.
‘The snow cost us all the profit from the farm that we’d earned in the previous three years.’
Agriculture Minister Phil Gawne said: ‘Last year’s disastrous snow event will be etched on our memories for many years to come.
Farmers will need a couple more years for their livestock numbers to recover from this tragedy, but I have been particularly impressed by the resilience they have shown in dealing with their unexpected losses.
‘Support from Government and the Agricultural Benevolent Fund has meant that farmers can rebuild their businesses, but the effect of this awful event will be felt for years to come.’