Easter heatwave deepens Norfolk farmers’ drought fears

PUBLISHED: 07:22 19 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:01 19 April 2019

An empty rain gauge in a parched potato field in north Norfolk. Picture: Kit Papworth

An empty rain gauge in a parched potato field in north Norfolk. Picture: Kit Papworth

Kit Papworth

While many people are looking forward to glorious Easter sunshine, the predicted spring heatwave has deepened farmers’ concerns of a drought which could damage the region’s food crops.

The hot, dry spring has brought an early irrigation season for farmers in 2019. Picture: Ian BurtThe hot, dry spring has brought an early irrigation season for farmers in 2019. Picture: Ian Burt

Parts of Norfolk are expected to be hotter than Ibiza during the Bank Holiday weekend, with forecast temperatures as high as 22C on Saturday.

But this is a crucial time for the development of cereal, vegetable and potato crops, and farmers are becoming increasingly worried about the lack of water.

North Norfolk farm contractor Kit Papworth said he is preparing to start irrigating his wheat crops on Tuesday – a “very unusual” measure to take in April.

“We have had a perfect growing season up to this point – we have spent most of the money on the crop already, and it would be a crying shame if we cannot get the water there for it to grow,” he said.

Norfolk farmer Kit Papworth.Norfolk farmer Kit Papworth.

“From an industry perspective that is a serious concern. People have to prioritise which crops get water and if you make a wrong call in April or May, and by July you run out of water, or run out of licence [to abstract it], then the cropping is going to go off at that point.

“On Tuesday we will start to irrigate the wheat with the most potential, and the barley – particularly spring barley – is starting to look very thirsty indeed. But potatoes are the big risk.

“Ideally we need an inch of rain on every crop every week over the summer. That can happen overnight or in a big burst as long as we get it. But we have not had any rain to speak of in March or April, and by now there is no rain in the forecast whatsoever.

“We are going to have a shortage if we are not careful, and grain prices are already starting to move. We can joke about Norfolk being hotter than Ibiza, but this could be very serious – the markets react very quickly and grain prices could rise quickly.”

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Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers' Union (NFU). said: “Last summer's agricultural drought is still fresh in the memory. The impact of that was not as bad as it could have been because we had quite favourable weather conditions in autumn, winter and spring.

“We had really good conditions for crop planting and crop establishment, and the countryside was looking pretty good. The issue now is that crops are starting to grow well, but temperatures are rising and soils are quite dry very early in the season. So while it is far too early to predict anything about how 2019 is going to play out, farmers are already concerned.

“It is really difficult for those farmers who depend on rainfall. Although East Anglia's groundwater is at a level below average, we are still being told that there will be no restrictions on farmers abstracting from boreholes this year, which is really important. We are keeping in close contact with the Environment Agency.

“The big one for Norfolk and Suffolk is going to be irrigated cropping. Those crops are getting away really well and it is an important time of year for them.

“It could well be an early irrigation season. Many farm reservoirs are full, but by no means all of them. We know that those who rely on boreholes should be OK, but then it is a question of how long the rivers will maintain sufficient flows to allow direct abstraction during the irrigation season.

“Again, it is a tiny reminder that farmers rely hugely on water to produce the nation's food.”


A new guide has been created to help alleviate livestock stress and keep animals safe if farm water supplies are interrupted.

As temperatures fluctuate the likelihood of pipes bursting increases, with livestock businesses acutely dependent on a reliable supply of water.

So advice has been published by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), in partnership with the National Farmers' Union (NFU) and Water UK.

AHDB water resources scientist Nicola Dunn said: “When water supplies are interrupted on a livestock farm, time is critical.

“Farms may already have a plan in place, but if they haven't there are simple steps you can take to make sure animals have access to the water they need. This is particularly relevant for businesses with lactating stock, where cows need between 60 to 100 litres of water per day, while sows and gilts may require 15 to 30 litres per day.”

“Following changes in water regulation, the guide also clarifies farmers' points of contact with mains water wholesalers, and explains the need to register as a Category 4 sensitive customer, so if farm water is cut off the supplier can prioritise accordingly.

• For the full guide see the AHDB website.

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