THE cost of farm fires in the UK hit a four-year peak last year, with 2018’s prolonged, dry summer and early harvest causing devastation in the countryside.

Claims figures from the county's leading rural insurer NFU Mutual reveal that farm fires cost £46.4m in 2018, an increase of 27.5 per cent on the previous year.

The South West was the third worst hit region, with claims costs reaching more than £7m, a 14 per cent rise from 2017.

Meanwhile, the East was the worst-affected region in 2018, costing the area £11.1m.

Scotland was the second worst-affected area, with claims costs totalling £7.6m.

Earlier this month around 100 bales of hay were destroyed in a field fire in Swanage

In April, this year, 50 firefighters were called to deal with another large fire, involving stacked timber, at a farm in Bere Regis.

The increased scale of farm fires has prompted a call to farmers to check their fire prevention methods and evacuation procedures.

Rebecca Davidson, NFU Mutual rural insurance specialist, said: "Fire remains one of the greatest risks to the lives and property of farmers.

“Our latest figures serve as a crucial reminder to be alert to the danger and have plans prepared and shared with family members and staff. It is possible to manage the risks by taking all possible steps to prevent fires breaking out, and to have clear plans in place to evacuate people and livestock safely in the event of a fire.”

Electric fires were the most common cause of farm fires in the South West in 2018 (42 per cent), while the prolonged, drier summer contributed to the scale of blazes. According to the Met Office, 2018 was the driest summer since 2003 and hottest since 2006. These conditions and an early harvest left UK farmers particularly vulnerable to fires, with tinder dry crops and overheating combines and farm machinery.

The second most common cause of fire in the region was fires spreading from other areas, such as barns and homesteads (23 per cent), followed in third place by arson (12 per cent).

Ian Jewitt, Managing Director of NFU Mutual Risk Management Services, said: “Electrical faults are the biggest cause of farm fires across the UK and we’d advise farmers to schedule regular safety checks of electrical equipment to help minimise that risk.

"Consider fencing off straw stacks and farm buildings to discourage arsonists and make it harder for fires to spread by keeping hay and straw at least 10 meters away from farm buildings.

“To enable you to fight a small fire safely, keep fire extinguishers in good working order and make adults living and working on the farm aware of where they can be found and how they should be used.”