Winter fires amidst the storms

Livestock is housed at this time of year and large amounts of winter stocks of hay, straw and silage are being stored inside - so should a fire strike, the risk of loss is at its greatest
Richard Henderson

IT'S estimated that claims arising from farm fires rose by over 50 per cent in 2016 in Northern Ireland – devastating livelihoods and businesses which may have taken generations to build up.

Strange as it may sound, particularly as we're still drying off from Storm Eleanor and exceptional autumn rainfall that has left fields waterlogged, fire is more of a winter than summer threat for farmers.

That's because at this time of year all livestock is housed, machinery is packed away and large amounts of winter stocks of hay, straw, silage and meals are being stored inside. Should a fire strike, the risk of loss is at its greatest.

Electrical faults are the main cause. This may be due to faulty wiring in a farm building or in a vehicle parked in a shed, perhaps with straw and other combustible material close by. As we move into the New Year, lambing will also begin which means the use of infrared heat bulbs, another potential source of fire.

The extremely wet autumn has also created a shortage of winterfeed supplies. As a result the cost of feedstuffs is rocketing with straw, round bale silage and clamp silage all at record prices. Not only is the loss of this by fire a real financial burden, it's also physically difficult to replace due to the scarcity of feedstuff this winter.

In the poultry sector fire is an ever present threat given the nature of the business – plenty of combustible material (feathers, dust and bedding) combined with propane heaters and electrics necessary to keep birds warm.

There is, of course, plenty which farmers can do to mitigate fire risk. Taking time to review how farms are managed in the light of fire hazards, can quickly highlight where improvements can be made.

Firstly, try not to park machinery and vehicles in the same shed as, or close to, combustible materials like straw. Also, wherever possible, make sure that livestock is housed in a separate shed.

It goes without saying that welding and cutting should only be carried out in areas well away from any flammable materials. One spark is all it takes.

Prevention is always better than cure and a little bit of outlay now can save a literal fortune later on. In that vein make sure that electrical wiring in sheds is checked regularly by a qualified electrician and also ensure that there are appropriate (and fully charged) fire extinguishers available.

Do you have a fire plan? Do you, your staff and your family understand where fire hydrants and extinguishers are located? Is there an evacuation route for livestock? Does someone need to meet and direct the fire service on its arrival?

It's also essential that your farm insurance cover is adequate and that the sums insured for farm buildings, livestock, contents and other produce are sufficient to replace the maximum amounts held on your farm at any one time. Should the worst happen this will enable your farm business to get back up and trading as quickly as possible.

:: Richard Henderson is head of agriculture insurance at Autoline Insurance Group (

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