Weird weather puts the breaks on English wine industry

Weird weather puts the breaks on English wine industry

By Will Bugler

The budding English wine industry has taken a hit as warm winter weather gave way to sharp frosts in early spring. Winemakers have reported severe damage to the buds on their vines, and expect a very poor harvest. Climate change is making soft fruit growing more difficult in the UK and in other northern European countries as the weather becomes increasingly unpredictable.

The English wine industry has grown considerably in recent years, increasing production by 25% from 2010 to 2015, when the country’s 133 wineries producing over five million bottles. But the English weather is still not reliable enough to guarantee a good crop.

Winemakers have taken steps to protect their crops in early spring, by using frost fans and even candles placed beneath the vines. However, as temperatures plunged to -6˚C in parts of the country, these steps were insufficient to protect the fragile buds. Some winemakers expect yields to be down as much as 50%, with many other countries in Europe likely to have also been affected to some extent.

A risk to agriculture

Farmers of all stripes have been battling inclement weather for many decades, acknowledging that bumper crops are sometimes punctuated by lean years. Here  on the Acclimatise Network we have reported how inclement weather has affected apple farmers in the UK, and vegetable growers throughout Europe.

The difficulty that the agriculture sector faces is not in taking measures to adapt to specific risks, but in managing the considerable uncertainty that has accompanied climate change. This makes planning extremely difficult as crops all react differently to different weather conditions and farmers must plan next year’s harvest long before they have any certainty over the likely weather conditions.

Research from the John Innes Centre, a leading institute for plant science and microbiology, has suggested that there are four main categories of risk that climate change presents for agriculture:

  1. Increased rainfall: which leads to waterlogging and flooding damaging crops and increasing costs for livestock farmers.
  2. Warm winters: cold weather over the winter is essential for soft and orchard fruit yields as the plants require a dormant period in preparation for new growth in the spring.
  3. Disease: new pests and increased levels of increasing pests and diseases can blight crops.
  4. Drought and water scarcity: can increase input costs from irrigation and, if severe can affect yields.

Building resilience

With such a range of possible climate impacts affecting agricultural production, targeted adaptation measures are not always the most cost effective investments for farmers. Instead minimising risk often means diversifying their portfolios, growing a broader range of varieties or species, and having other non-weather dependent income streams.

A resilient approach also means being flexible and responsive to opportunities to grow new crops that may previously have been unsuitable for cultivation, such as peach trees. Longer growing seasons may also allow for new vegetables to be grown in Northern European countries.

New technologies and developments in seed varieties also offer opportunities for farmers to increase their resilience, however without sufficient diversification there is a limit to what can be achieved relying on this approach in isolation.

A year’s bad harvest hardly spells disaster for the English wine industry, however unpredictable weather conditions will make planning more difficult for everyone connected with agriculture in Northern Europe. Managing climate risks and capitalizing on emerging opportunities will depend to a large extent on the sector’s ability to diversify and increase its resilience.

Cover photo by Ewan Munro (CC BY-SA-2.0)

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