What a difference a year makes in upper Teesdale

The Northern Echo: SPRING VISITORS: Keith and Jean Lazenby took advantage of the spring sunshine to visit upper Teesdale SPRING VISITORS: Keith and Jean Lazenby took advantage of the spring sunshine to visit upper Teesdale

WHAT a difference a year makes. Rewind just over 12 months and upper Teesdale was buried beneath a blanket of snow which caused chaos for all who live and work in one of the region's rural areas.

This winter couldn't have been more different, with little snow, few frosts but plenty of rain.

As STUART LAUNDY reports, while life has returned to normal for many, there are those still feeling the effects of last spring's cold snap.

“IT was a wicked end to the winter,” says farmer Richard Betton recalling the so-called spring of 2013.

In some cases, farms in upper Teesdale lost ten per cent of their stock to an unseasonal spell of whether which covered upper Teesdale in deep snow.

Pregnant ewes were aborting while some of those giving birth were unable to produce enough milk to feed their lambs.

“A lot of cows did not get out until June. Crops were not as good on farms so there has been a bit of a shortage of feed. Silage is a bit scarce.

“I just hope we can get the cows out early this year,” adds Mr Betton, who farms at Harwood, beyond Middleton-in-Teesdale and 1,450ft above sea level.

“I would be very surprised if any farmer is not financially worse off than the year before.”

Such was the plight of farmers in the upper dale, an appeal was launched by the County Durham Community Foundation and Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (Utass).

Dubbed Helping Hands, more than £30,000 was raised to cover the costs of a pool of qualified farm workers who were able to provide immediate practical support to those in need.

When the scheme ended in August, 40 farms had received help from a pool of 36 farm workers who came forward.

The consequences of the spring snow were still being felt even later in the year.

In common with others, Mr Betton did not sell any breeding ewes, kept hold of older sheep and had to buy spare female lambs for his 280-strong flock of Swaledales.

Although things are looking better than a year ago, the problem this winter has been rain, he says.

Sodden ground has left farmers in a race against time to get muck spreading completed.

Environmental restrictions mean nobody is allowed to spread between April 1 and June 30.

“The ground has been too wet. If you went into a field with a tractor to spread muck, it would damage the field,” he says.

The wet winter has also raised fears of a major liver fluke outbreak in sheep during the spring.

“If there is an explosion in liver fluke, it will show up during lambing.”

Although there is no vaccine for liver fluke, it is treatable.

“We could do with a good spring after it has rained all winter,” says Mr Betton.

This time last year, Claire Tunstall, a teacher at remote Forest-of-Teesdale Primary School took somewhat drastic measures to ensure classes went ahead.

She left her home in Kirkby Stephen and moved in with the school's former assistant head at Middleton-in-Teesdale.

There has been nothing so dramatic this winter.

“I have packed my bag once or twice this winter, but I have never stopped over. I think the school has been closed for half a day and that's been it.

“We have not seen a visible difference in the seasons this year. At least with snow on the ground, you know it's winter.”

That lack of snow and some welcome spring sunshine has, however, brought an early influx of walkers and outdoor enthusiasts to upper Teesdale.

Keith and Jean Lazenby, from Beverley, East Yorkshire, were among many out along the Teesdale Way.

They paused to admire the view at Low Force during a short visit to the dale to celebrate Jean's birthday.

This has delighted staff at the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) partnership, who have been quick to make up for lost time as last year's snow affected the £250,000 refurbishment of their visitor centre at Bowlees.

It eventually opened at the end of June. Like many things in upper Teesdale last year, it was a couple of months behind schedule.

Initially, the centre was due to close in winter, but officials decided to open at weekends during the off-season.

A spokeswoman said this had been a good move, welcomed by high numbers of winter walkers.

And unlike last year, the North Pennines AONB partnership has been able to draw up a full programme of events now that the centre is fully open for the 2014 season.

All it needs is for the sun to keep shining.

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