The snow may now be disappearing but farmers and crofters are counting the cost of extra feed they have had to buy for their livestock during the long-lasting cold spell.
Silage, hay and food pellets have had to be sourced in bulk to keep beasts fed during the longest cold weather period since 1987.
Although it mostly cleared this week snow has maintained a lingering presence over the isles since as far back as December, pushing the price of hay up to £50 a round bale as demand for feed has out-stripped available supply.
Some crofters, who have been used to a succession of mild winters in recent years, have even been caught out by the conditions and have had to buy in extra food for their beasts at the last minute.
Agricultural suppliers have reported a brisk trade over the last couple of months with demand for processed feed such as pellets also stronger than usual.
Shetland’s NFU president Kathleen Sinclair said many had problems finding good bales.
“Sourcing good quality hay or straw is proving more difficult,” she said. “With freight the cost of a round bale of hay in Shetland is £50 and straw in the region of £40 which is very expensive. “There is still hay available on the mainland, but of poorer quality, and if the snow were to continue it could be a problem. In my own opinion over the last years we have had milder wet winters so we didn’t need to feed hay or silage outside for very long. “This year the snow started before Christmas and lay for three weeks, then it was off and on until now, so it’s the longest spell we have had for a lot of years.”
One person who has faced problems with the weather is Weisdale crofter Agnes Leask.
She said she had struggled to keep a flock of 20 in-by ewes on her holding at Cott fully fed – even though the land they were on had not been grazed on during the summer.
She was forced to buy in extra high protein feed blocks for the animals at a cost of around £9 each to help supplement their diet of baled silage.
“Normally in the winter you would give them a feeding block every two weeks, but the price of feeding blocks have gone up this year,” she said.
“In a normal winter it would be mostly once a fortnight I would put out a block to 20 sheep. This winter, during the snow, by the end of one week they had finished it – even though they had the baled silage as well – because they needed the high protein energy the blocks give them.”
She said the approximate price of a small “black bale”, or silage bale, had varied from £20 to £30 but prices have gone up as demand has increased.
Smaller producers, she said, do not have adequate storage for the larger bales, meaning they are forced to buy more of the smaller ones instead at more regular intervals.
“This is small-scale. This is crofting agriculture. We haven’t got the facilities to store big bales. We’ve had some very mild winters. In years gone by those in-by sheep would have just got feed-blocks.
“We would have a few small bales of hay because you’ll always get a peerie bit of snow. We keep a few small bales and that has been enough to do them for the last 10 years or more.
“The good news is when my accounts go in next year there will be not a penny for the taxman – the local feed merchants will get it all!”
News of the problem has now reached the corridors of power at Holyrood, where evidence from crofters is currently being sifted through which could influence the Crofting Reform Bill.
Last week West Side area assessor Jim Nicolson told MSPs the winter was hitting crofters hard in the pocket.
Speaking to The Shetland Times, he said his two holdings in Aith containing 190 ewes between them were self-sufficient, however he had heard from plenty of other producers who had been affected by the big freeze.
Mr Nicolson said feed was going up because of rising running costs experienced by contractors, as well as supply and demand.
“With the increase in oil prices things like bale-wrap have been very expensive,” he said. “Baling is quite expensive in any case.
It would probably cost around £12 to get a bale of silage with a contractor, but then you have artificial fertiliser that needs to be applied to the ground – so that’s an additional cost.”
Those factors, he said, might push the real cost of a bale to between £15 and £17. However high demand in the cold weather was steadily pushing the price upwards further.
“The price of hay has actually doubled. You could pay up to £50 for a round bale,” he said.
He said someone with 100 sheep may have had to buy an additional 20 bales on top of the 50 to 60 they had initially bought to see them through the winter.
Most farmers will also buy in supplementary feed, but Mr Nicolson said many preferred to work with bales during the worst of the winter period, because feeding boxes used for pellets had “frozen to the ground or filled with snow”.
“That has probably resulted in some people wanting to continue feeding silage,” he said.
That hasn’t stopped animal feed suppliers from having a busy period over the last couple of months.
Harbro Ltd, Shetland’s largest supplier of agricultural feed, has seen trade steadily increase since the snow started.
“We’ve had quite a busy time. We’ve had a struggle to keep up with the demand for feed,” said Harbro’s local branch manager, Stephen Leask – although he insisted Harbro’s considerable size gave it the economies of scale to help prevent prices from spiralling upwards.
“I would think demand is up by a quarter on the same period last year,” he said. “You have the situation in Shetland where you are having to feed anyway because there is very little grass.”