Suffolk farmers reflected on a year plagued by bird flu, field fires and political turbulence at their annual meeting.

Members of the National Farmers' Union's (NFU) Suffolk branch expressed exasperation and frustration at the huge uncertainty clouding their future in a year when turmoil at the top of government has led to vital decisions being delayed or shelved.

But they paid tribute to the efforts of the county's fire crews after the sweltering summer heatwave saw blazes sweep through parched fields.

Deputy NFU Suffolk chairman Glenn Buckingham expressed heartfelt thanks to Suffolk fire chief Jon Lacey and his crews on behalf of the county's farmers.

The branch annual general meeting at Fynn Valley Golf Club, near Ipswich, on Friday (November 11) heard how crews - many of which are on-call but not part of the county's full-time staff - had worked tirelessly to put out field fires.

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The county's farmers and fire service are now looking at a number of ways in which farms can help the crews to do their jobs - as extreme weather from climate change heightens the threat of wildfires.

Among the initiatives to come out of talks are coupling devices on fire engines to allow crews to link to water sources on farm, such as water bowsers. Other areas being explored include providing crews with plans for where to find water on farms and fire breaks to prevent spread.

"Throughout the whole summer it was busy due to the rise in temperatures. I think we can expect to see that in the future," warned Mr Lacey. "It was not our worst year in history but it was our worst year in a decade."

Mr Buckingham - who contacted the service to see what co-operation might be possible in future to help prevent fire spread - was prompted to act after a blaze broke out in one of his stubble fields in October.

"I started to realise we need to be talking," said the farmer, who is based on the Helmingham Estate, near Debenham.

Mr Lacey urged farmers and rural householders to participate in a consultation on the service's Community Risk Management Plan.

Among the overriding themes of the meeting - along with the challenges farmers have faced this year - was the need for farmers to communicate more and provide more feedback.

Guest speaker David Exwood, vice president of the NFU, called on members to offer their views and become more involved during a critical time for the sector.

He described a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which was riven by division - among politicians and civil servants - which he said was making things hard for lobby groups such as the NFU.

This had led to uncertainty around farm policy, he explained, and caused delays in rolling out a viable successor to the Common Agricultural Policy.

With the practical form of parts of the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) yet to be finalised, many farmers were turning to Countryside Stewardship schemes as they sought ways to fill the void left in their finances as the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) farm subsidy was phased out, the meeting was told.

Meanwhile farmers were at the mercy of the markets, facing huge cost volatility. "You don't know when to buy, you don't know when to sell," said Mr Exwood.

There were so many issues at the moment - including labour shortages - but among the most acute was the bird flu crisis, he said.

Government needed to get to grips with the "terrible disease", he said, or farmers would vote with their feet. "We have got to get that confidence back in," he said.

Otherwise, it would lead to scenes such as the empty egg shelves in supermarkets which had caused such a stir recently, he warned. This was "quite an extraordinary situation" but "just the tip of the iceberg", he warned. "This is something affecting so many other sectors," he added.

The route of electricity pylons through Suffolk was also a cause for concern at the meeting. Farmers questioned why other options had not been pursued - and suggested infrastructure bosses were demanding more land than was necessary.

But paralysis at the top of government was key, said Mr Exwood. 

"You cannot park government for such an extended period," he said. "We now have the hangover of that."

Branch chairman Andrew Blenkiron said there still "real positives" for those in the industry at the moment. 

"We still continue to supply a massive amount of the domestic food," he said. There were also big opportunities in energy and in biodiversity or carbon sequestration projects, he added.

"We are looking forward to the future. As always, farmers will adapt and thrive," he said.

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