West Europe's grains snug under snow; UK crop worry persists
* French, German grain and rapeseed doing well this winter
* Snow protects wheat, rapeseed from frosts
* Serious British crop worry after bad weather
HAMBURG, Jan 24 (Reuters) - A blanket of snow is protecting grain and rapeseed crops from bitter frosts in leading European Union producers France and Germany, but there is serious concern about weather damage to the British crop, analysts said.
British farmers are already braced for poor wheat and rapeseed harvests this year, with some of the wettest weather on record preventing farmers from sowing crops and leaving many plants in poor condition.
"As things stand now, French and German grains and rapeseed are doing fine but the British problems could have a significant impact on the 2013 harvest and trade flows," one German trader said.
"But we still have over two months in which major frost damage can take place," he added.
In France, the EU's largest wheat producer and exporter, frosts are not causing concern due to thick snow cover.
"The current cold wave presents low risks for well-rooted wheat," said Jean-Charles Deswarte of French crop institute Arvalis.
Private weather forecasters said the current cold wave in France could be ended by a return to milder temperatures next week.
"Wheat plants are not overdeveloped like last year so are more likely to resist cold weather," Deswarte said. "Cumulative temperatures (this winter) are near seasonal averages," he said.
In rapeseed, for which France and Germany compete for the number one EU producer position, the picture remains mixed between French regions. In most cases, the plants developed late and are small.
In its first sowing estimates for the 2013 harvest in December, the ministry put the winter rapeseed area at 1.49 million hectares, down 7.1 percent on 2012. The ministry estimated France's winter wheat area up 2.8 percent at 4.96 million hectares.
GERMANY DOING WELL
In Germany, the EU's second-largest wheat producer, plants have also been protected from frosts by thick snow.
"The crop picture for grains and rapeseed in Germany is stable with frost damage not a theme so far," a German analyst said. "If we get though the next couple of months we should be positioned for a good harvest this year with both wheat and rapeseed sowings expanded."
Germany's winter wheat area for the 2013 harvest is up 7 percent on the year to 3.1 million hectares, the national statistics office said on Dec. 20. German winter rapeseed sowings are up 10.1 percent on the year to 1.42 million hectares, the office said.
The bright crop outlook has been darkened by serious problems in Britain, the EU's third-largest producer of wheat and rapeseed.
"We're looking at an underperforming crop for 2013, that is for sure, although it is difficult to quantify at this stage, said Home-Grown Cereals Authority senior analyst Jack Watts.
"The crops aren't in great shape. They are going to be more vulnerable if we see any extreme weather going forward so if we see another spring drought like we did a couple of years ago the impact is going to be much greater."
Watts said recent snow did not pose a major threat to crops but it limited opportunities for late planting of winter wheat crops which can continue until the end of February.
"Where there hasn't been snow, farmers may be drilling some late wheat but it is only going to be in pockets. We are staring down the barrel at quite a big decline in wheat area," he said.
The HGCA in November projected Britain's wheat area would fall 12 percent to 1.76 million hectares although Watts said that now represented a "best case scenario".
Rapeseed area is also expected to be down, with some estimating a decline of around 10 percent.
Britain had its second-wettest year on record in 2012, slashing its wheat crop by 13 percent on the year to 13.3 million tonnes and turning Britain from a major wheat exporter to a big importer.
"We may be waiting until 2014 before we get back to any sort of normality," Watts said, adding Britain was facing a "two-year hangover" from last year's weather.
A trader said this would create headaches for Britain's major feed wheat customers this year.
"Spain and the Netherlands will have to look elsewhere for their feed imports if another low British crop is confirmed," a German trader said. "British flour mills could also be forced to make larger imports than usual, with Germany, Poland and the Baltic States likely to get more British wheat sales." (Reporting by Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Valerie Parent in Paris and Nigel Hunt in London; Editing by Veronica Brown and Helen Massy-Beresford)