More than £60million has been paid out in flood and storm claims by rural insurer NFU so far, with the amount expected to soar in the coming weeks. Some of these claims have involved equestrian properties where horses have been forced to move as the waters rise.
“Where we have customers who have horses kept at home, we are also paying for their horses to be taken to alternative accommodation until the flood water recedes,” said an NFU spokesman.
“This is the worst weather our agents down on the Somerset Levels have ever seen.”
However, the disruption for owners is likely to be more widespread and long lasting. Experts warn that damage to the ground will take months — if not years — to recover.
The biggest concern for many owners is how to restore their turnout. Even fields that have not been flooded have been turned into mud pits by the rain over the past month. Richard Robinson, an agronomist (expert in soil management) at Countrywide, told H&H that grass that has been completely submerged by water for more than 10 days is likely to have been killed due to a lack of oxygen.
“Realistically, if a field has been under water for a long time, you are going to need to start from the beginning,” said Mr Robinson.
“The other problem is that the water will have washed away vital nutrients. [The grass] might look green, but it will have no benefit.”
Experts recommend that people have a soil test to discover what nutrients are missing. They should consider different reseeding options depending of the severity of the damage (see guidelines below). However, nothing can be done until the ground dries out enough to make it worthwhile to treat.
“If your field is muddy, you need to be ready to reseed when there is moisture still there but it is warmer. If you put seed down now all it will do is die,” said Peter Hunter, who runs a seed company in Chester.
The danger left behind
Landowners also need to be concerned about dangerous debris that might have been dragged on to the land by floodwaters or blown by the high winds. “If land has been completely swamped, at the very least it needs a very good walking over and people should consider hiring a metal detector,” said Andrew Morrey from Countrywide.
“People should also be aware that nails from blown over structures might be on the land. Dangerous plants, such as yew, could have been blown significantly further than in other years.”
As well as the destruction caused by the storms, a further danger might lie ahead when rivers and ditch dredging gets under way. Water dropwort and bryony can both be brought up by dredging and are highly toxic to horses.
It’s not all doom and gloom
As thousands of owners and farmers are struggling to battle through the conditions, the equestrian community has joined forces to donate hay and haylage to help those in need.
Francesca Pollara from Sunhill stud, Glos, has been one of the main co-ordinators of the donations, which have come to be known as “hay aid”. Tesco agreed to help with the campaign and offered to transport donated hay and haylage down to Somerset.
More than 6 lorries of hay, haylage and straw have now been sent through Francesca’s organisation.
Last Friday (14 February), The Queen announced she would be supporting farmers affected by the flooding on the Somerset Levels by contributing feed and bedding from the royal farms at Windsor.
Hunts have also joined in and the Quorn, Fernie, Belvoir, Cottesmore, Taunton Vale Foxhounds and North Cotswold have all made donations.
Naomi Parker from NFU said: “The generosity of the local community has been incredible. These donations are an absolute lifeline for farmers.”
Guards Polo Club near Windsor also got involved with the “Blitz” spirit last week and offered free emergency stabling to any horses affected by the flooding. Nine horses have now been moved into the club’s spare stables at Flemish Farm.
Leading Hunt calls it a day
The Bicester with Whaddon Chase (BHWC) have ended their season with immediate effect because of the weather.
“It is a shame,” said H&H hunting editor and former BHWC joint-master Polly Portwin. “But hunts haven’t lost days earlier in the season due to harsh cold weather like they normally do. It’s been an exceptional year, no one could have predicted that there would be this much rain.”
Other hunts are also being forced to scale back on meets or concentrate on roads and tracks because of the sodden land.
Early season events throw in the towel
With less than a fortnight to go until the start of the season, the eventing community is braced for another shaky start, as last year.
Tweseldown announced on Monday (17 February) that its first event, due to run 6-9 March, had cancelled because of the weather. The organisers of the Hampshire event were criticised on social media last year after it ran despite very muddy warm-up areas and dressage and showjumping arenas.
This is the fourth event within the first 6 weeks of the season to be cancelled due to the weather.
“With the forecast for the coming weeks, it is anyone’s guess as to how ground situations will change,” said British Eventing’s (BE) Mike Etherington-Smith.
“For BE and our organisers it is a case-by-case situation. For example, Isleham [organisers] were lucky with their event preparation because theydid it in early January. Others haven’t been so lucky.”
Badminton is bullish
Badminton was cancelled because of heavy rain in 2012, but organisers are confident that the event is not in jeopardy.
“The course-building is going ahead as planned,” said Julian Seaman from Badminton.
“A lot of work has been done on the course since 2007, so the ground on the course is not a concern. When it is really boggy, the problems we tend to have are with public areas, such as the tradestands and parking. But at the moment that is not a concern.”
Riders delay their season
Some riders are already considering delaying their start to the season, as they do not believe the ground will be good enough.
“I have contacted all my owners, saying that I will not be wasting their money or risking their horses by entering them for events in March,” H&H eventing blogger Lauren Shannon said.
“But I am lucky because I am not chasing qualifications this year, so I have a bit more time.”
Event rider Coral Keen tweeted: “Perhaps it the season should start from April now.”
What to do when the rain stops
1. Assess your ground and how much damage has been done. Some seeding companies will be prepared to offer advice from photographs.
2. Take a soil sample and have it tested. DIY soil samples cost approximately £15 and only require a trowel, bucket and bag.
3. Seek expert advice on fertilizing and whether ground needs completely reseeding or over-seeding — spreading seed over established turf that has been prepared for restoration — and on fertilizers required.
4. Any reseeding or over-seeding will need to take place at the end of March or beginning of April, depending on the weather.
5. Over-seeding will require the paddock to be rested for 5 to 6 weeks.
6. Reseeding will require the paddock to be left to rest for 2 to 3 months.
This article was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (20 February, 2014)