Postcard from the UK

Lambing is well underway in Britain.We’ve just returned from a trip to the UK and Ireland, which is why there have been fewer posts recently.

Unseasonably cold weather and prolonged snowstorms, led to a very late start to Spring and low 2°C temperatures on our arrival in the North of England in early April. What was immediately apparent was the brown frost-burnt pasture, of little use to livestock already low on fodder from the previous year’s wet summer.

Lamb births in the UK this year have fallen at a 30-year low, according to a recent item in the Independent newspaper and, while not a crisis yet, Eblex is said to be warning that a repeat of the past 12 months would be disastrous for farmers. Northern Ireland was particularly affected by the snow, which blanketed the region for weeks. Figures from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development show that fallen cattle numbers there this year doubled on the previous year (6,121 head in April, compared to 2,872 in April 2012), while 43,000 head of fallen sheep were also collected – 30,500 lambs and 12,500 ewes and rams.

The stress to humans was evident too. While in southern Ireland we heard of the very sad case of a southern dairy farmer who went out one morning, shot all of his cows and then himself. It was heartening on our return to see the New Zealand rural network initiatives to assist stressed producers.

However, there were less severe losses in other parts of Ireland and the UK and lambing did get underway. We saw plenty gamboling about by the time we left. Indoor lambing – ingeniously aided by CCTV and smartphone in one case, we know of – helped the survival of many young sheep and mums.

Smartphones are a boon, but we found rural broadband an issue in UK too. Navigating around Devon’s tiny lanes with a smartphone map was entertaining but disconcerting to say the least as lanes disappeared from the map when we were half-way down them!

As here, online shopping is on the rise, as is the use of social media. Another surprise, in England, was that even more of the old pubs have been boarded up, especially in the towns, but many of those that are still open have metamorphosed into gastro-pub eating establishments.

We were lucky enough to be handsomely hosted in family and friends’ homes throughout our trip and some new Sainsbury’s/Mintel research about British eating habits reflects what we experienced.

Sainsbury’s, in partnership with market research agency Mintel Consulting, carried out a study that “acts as a modern day census of the UK’s kitchen habits”. It covered the weekly family grocery shop to how Brits behave in the kitchen on a daily basis.

Carried out amongst 2,500 families with a further 25 mapping out their kitchen behaviour every day for a week via real time, online diaries, ‘Kitchen Dynamics’ showed that over 80 percent still have a Sunday roast but it’s shifted from a lunchtime meal to evening to fit in all the weekend activities. During the week, the family meal is held at 5.54pm and British families are prioritising eating together at least twice a week. Weekly meal planners are used with mums serving 2.25 meal choices per sitting – because, it seems, of rising occurrence of special dietary requirements such as low calorie regime, an intolerance or food group avoidance. Women are still chief of the kitchen, but the study found that men who do the family shop spend £235 a year more than their female counterparts.

Susi Richard, head of food at Sainsbury’s commented that despite the downturn, reassuringly, there is still a real emphasis on the importance of eating together and the presence of routine as a way of coping with the pressures of the busy family week. “The shifting backwards of the Sunday Lunch to early evening is a clear example of families ring-fencing meal time but adapting tradition to suit the modern day demands of a hectic family schedule,” she said, adding that 83 percent of families in the study had changed their grocery shopping habits. “We are committed to catering for this change and helping families enjoy great quality food at affordable prices.”

There’s still room for that Sunday roast leg or rack of lamb then!

Sainsbury’s must be doing something right in a difficult economic environment. Its preliminary results for the year to end 16 March 2013, show a 4.6 percent increase in sales, including value-added tax to £25,632 million (up from £24,511 million a year earlier) and an underlying profit before tax up 6.2 percent to £756 million. Chief executive Justin King says that the focus on Live Well for Less is “delivering good growth in sales and profit.”

Anyway, nice to be back, even if jet-lagged!


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