Thursday, April 4, 2013

The good shepherd

Gareth Wyn Jones with Eryri Cap

BBC photo of Welsh sheep farmer Gareth Wyn Jones, looking for lost sheep this week.

As the Womerlippi farmers are coming through another lambing season on our own farm with the usual phlegm and humor, more news comes in of the crisis on the UK's hill farms. 

Essentially, what seems to have happened is that a weakening of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) has caused deeper meanders (AKA increased wave "amplitude") in the jet stream this year, which itself has caused our variable but mostly colder-than-usual spring here in Maine, and delivered unexpected snowfalls and freezing weather to the hills of Wales, Northern England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Lambing season for many sheep farmers in those places still takes place out-of-doors. The traditional hill sheep operation in the UK uses common land and extensive grazing, and has very little of the "in-bye" or developed grass close to the farms. Sheep are instead bred to be "hefted" to a particular open range.

This works fine as long as the UK's normally mild winters and springs continue. But the most recent science suggests a strong role for the negative phase of the AO in deep jet stream meanders, which means that regions like Maine and the UK that are in the path of the polar jet from October to May may now get much more violent oscillations between warm and cold air masses, and of course the more violent warm and cold front weather that will accompany each passing Rossby Wave.

The result in Britain has been an horrific spring snowstorm and deep drifts on the hill farms. Ewes and lambs are buried in the drifts.

This is all good grist for the mill of our class in Global Change where we are studying the great oscillating circulations of the planet, and the workings of the ar masses and the jet stream. We get to see how climate change works in real time, and to consider the social and economic impact. It's a great "teachable moment."

But it's pretty horrible for the UK's sheep.

One of the attitudes that you develop as a shepherd is a deeply visceral sense of responsibility for your sheep. I identify strongly with this ethic.

In general I don't think you should take over responsibility for any kind of animal, even a goldfish, unless you can develop empathy and understanding for that animal.

(I would also extend this ethic to the endeavor of human leadership. I learned most of my leadership skills in the military, running search and rescue operations in these same British hills with the Royal Air Force's Mountain Rescue Service, celebrating it's seventieth anniversary this year. Despite the reputation or stereotype of military leadership skills, I soon learned that to lead rescue "troops" in the mountains well, to complete the mission and to help save lives,  I needed to know my people really, really well and to empathize with them and understand them as well as I could. The result, of course, was lifelong friendship and loyalty, well worth the investment. And I went on to use those skills in other endeavors, including teaching college.)

Aimee and I put a lot of effort into looking after our small sheep herd. Sometimes it has to be tough love, when a sheep is sick and needs to be put down. This time of year, waiting for lambs, doing night checks, worrying about how cold it is, about spring storms and supplies of feed, it can be hard.

It's also rewarding. I tend to think it makes us both better people. And I love our lambs. They make it all worthwhile.

But I've had to dig my own dead lambs out of a snowbank, and I've had to put down sick sheep with my own hands.

So I can very easily imagine how gutted these British farmers are feeling right now, having to dig hundreds of dead lambs out of the snow.

Weaker individuals would just stay home and drink tea and wait for better weather. But the good shepherd can't do that. He has to rescue his sheep, if he can.

There are big lessons in this horrible spring tragedy. One is that farmers do need to adapt to climate change. If this weather pattern continues, a pretty big "if" since there may be other yet more dramatic changes waiting in the wings, but if it continues these British hill sheep, after thousands of years of outdoor lambing, may now need to be brought indoors like our Maine sheep, or indeed like the "softer" lowland breeds. These are hard lessons for people that have been farming the same land all their lives. Many won't be able to adapt mentally. Many will remain in denial.

This will also be expensive and hard for hill farmers to do. Some farmers won't be able to afford it, and some British hill grazing will have to revert to forest, heath or scrub as a result. The cost of disposing of the dead lambs and ewes will be enough to force many into bankruptcy.

The farmers are pleading with the government for help. Ordinarily any UK government would be responsive. But this one is led by neo-liberal capitalists from the south of the country.

Another lesson seems to be that business-as-usual capitalism is inadequate for dealing with climate change.

Just as it was inadequate for dealing with the Great Depression, Nazi Germany, or the Cold War.

Anyone who thinks that we will be able to live through this century of climate change without reconsidering the role of government and private enterprise should go take a walk this week with a British hill farmer.

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