COUNTRYSIDE NOTES DROUGHT AUGUST 2018 – Drought

 

This has been the longest dry spell for 40 years and exceedingly high temperatures combined with a moisture sapping wind have led to serious drought conditions. Following a wet winter and spring, there is apparently enough water in reservoirs and underground water levels are high but a 30% rise in consumption has led to problems delivering sufficient through the pipelines. During the severe drought in 1976 restrictions on water use were introduced. Ironically, a Minister of Drought was appointed and shortly afterwards saw the start of several weeks of heavy rain.
We’ve all found that some plants are better at coping with drought conditions than others. When it’s really dry those at most risk quickly set seed. They themselves might die but they attempt to reproduce before this happens. Everywhere the grass is brown, but grass is very resilient and will come to life again when we get some proper rain. The immediate shortage of grass however is of huge concern to livestock farmers who not only rely on it as summer feed for their cattle and sheep but just as importantly to provide fodder for the winter. Streams which normally provide natural drinking water for livestock have dried up and alternative supplies have been needed. Locally many farmers have built reservoirs for watering their crops and the irrigating they do must have helped wildlife survive. Wheat is not normally irrigated and might look as though it’s ripening but it is in fact dying off. The grain will be sub-standard and straw supplies may be an issue later on. Heath and grass fires are an ongoing problem. A layer of peat lies beneath heather moorland and once this catches light it will continue to burn underground making it extremely difficult to extinguish.
Like us animals and birds suffer from the heat and use various ways of trying to keep cool. Obviously seeking shade is the primary method. Nearly all animals sweat but to varying degrees. Perspiration evaporates providing a cooling effect and water consumption is increased to compensate. Humans, primates and horses have the most sweat glands. To a lesser degree other animals sweat not only through their skin but also the pads of their feet. Cows have only 10% of the sweat glands we have and as a last resort attempt to cool down by opening their mouths. Birds and many other animals, in particular dogs, pant to avoid overheating. Water evaporates from the moist lining of the oral cavity and pharynx. To lower their temperature species which have big ears increase blood flow to them. Pigs, hippos and rhinos however don’t have any sweat glands so rely on wallowing in wet mud to protect themselves.

To date (11th July) there is little sign of the drought breaking but no doubt by the time you read this it will be raining. Nature has an amazing way of balancing things out so by the end of the year this heat wave may be but a distant memory although higher food prices may act as a reminder.

Jill Mason

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