Farm Ireland

Thursday 14 December 2017

Let's not freeze out neighbours as ice woes end

UNITED AS ONE: The big freeze saw communites come together to help one another in a time of need. It would be a pity to see the solidarity forged during this period melt away with the snow
UNITED AS ONE: The big freeze saw communites come together to help one another in a time of need. It would be a pity to see the solidarity forged during this period melt away with the snow

John Shirley

All was not negative in the big freeze. The fact that the nation was grounded for a few days gave us the opportunity to meet our neighbours.

It used to be said that in the country you can afford to fall out with your relations, you could even fall out with friends, but you should always stay on good terms with your neighbours. In the Middle Ages across Europe, even where there was bad blood there was an unwritten rule that a neighbour would never refuse a request for the 'fire'. That was before the match had been invented to relight the fire each morning.

Your nearest neighbour in the Irish countryside is often a relation. Maybe even the in-laws with whom one should never fall out.

In other cases in today's Ireland, the neighbour is the person in the new house whom you hardly knew until the freeze-up brought a request for jump leads, food or water. And there is a new house now dotted in nearly every roadside field in rural Ireland.

Irish people are renowned for their giving during a crisis of any sort and for their sense of community. I believe that, in the past few weeks, we again rose to the challenge. On the day of the biggest snowfall I called to an elderly neighbour living on his own, only to find that there were other sets of footprints in the fresh snow leading to the back door. His fire was alight. People from the HSE and community organisations were magnificently carrying out their work during the freeze-up, in spite of the scary roads.

But good and all as the community atmosphere was, farmers will not want a repeat of the nightmare of the January 10 freeze-up. Winter milk producers suffered worst. With frozen parlours, some did not get milking until after lunch. The real problem for a couple of days was that, even in the middle of the afternoon, the temperature remained well below zero. Ice refroze as fast as you melted it. In our area, where temperature dropped to -10°C and lower, the diesel froze and tractors wouldn't start. Further up the country milk had to be spilled as the collecting tankers couldn't get to the farm.

Practically every farmyard had frozen drinkers, and local plumbing suppliers had a short-lived bonanza selling hose pipes, insulation materials and fittings.

Some farmers in our area don't get excited about providing water for housed livestock if they are only getting silage. Some years ago, when cattle drinkers were frozen, it was noticed that the cattle still thrived without added drinking water. The only difference was that the straw beds stayed a lot drier. So, when the thaw came, the farmers left the drinkers turned off and they have stayed off ever since. The sky hasn't fallen. The cattle adjust to lower fluid intake.

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It would make an interesting trial for Teagasc to see if providing added water does anything for livestock being wintered largely, or fully, on silage.

What lessons have we learned from the crisis? Certainly there are exposed pipes that need lagging. One of the alarming developments was how the underground pipes in the new grant-aided farm sheds froze. Burying these deeper would be a huge job.

Or do we stop worrying, assume that the freeze-up is only a once-in-a-50-year event, and carry on as if nothing happened? After all, are the experts not still telling us that Irish winters will get warmer and wetter?

However, come hot or cold the elderly neighbours living on their own will still be with us. They can be just as lonely during other seasons of the year. Now that new contacts have been made, the challenge will be to keep up the community spirit and the neighbourly visits during the rest of the year.

Irish Independent