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Drone patrols to crack down on illegal water use on Fenland farms

PUBLISHED: 08:25 24 July 2019 | UPDATED: 09:11 24 July 2019

Aerial drones will be used by the Environment Agency this summer to check for illegal water abstraction in the Fens. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Aerial drones will be used by the Environment Agency this summer to check for illegal water abstraction in the Fens. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

Farmers flouting water abstraction laws in the Fens during the hot weather will be targeted by drones for the first time this summer.

The Environment Agency is stepping up its spray irrigation abstraction patrols in the Fens during the hot summer weather. Picture: Environment AgencyThe Environment Agency is stepping up its spray irrigation abstraction patrols in the Fens during the hot summer weather. Picture: Environment Agency

The Environment Agency carries out compliance patrols throughout each irrigation season to ensure farmers and landowners are adhering to the conditions of their licences and not damaging the environment.

But after last year's heatwave led to a number of illegal abstractions by growers desperate to water their valuable crops, the monitoring efforts will be stepped up this year with aerial drone patrols in Fenland areas.

Andrew Chapman, environment planning specialist for the Environment Agency in East Anglia, said: "Following on from the hot and dry summer we experienced in 2018 our area has not received the winter rainfall we would normally expect and this is placing significant pressure on the water environment.

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"We have contacted irrigators who have licences that permit abstraction from the Middle Level to inform them that restrictions are likely to be required during the irrigation season.

"We will be prioritising our water resources compliance work over the summer period in those catchments that are at risk from this prolonged dry period. "This will be the first time we have ever used drones for this purpose. The majority of irrigators do operate within their licence conditions. However, last year a minority of farmers did not play by the rules and severely restricted other people's ability to irrigate their crops."

The EA says if irrigators are found to be abstracting illegally, enforcement action will be taken which could include written warnings, civil sanctions, referral to the Rural Payments Agency or prosecution.

The frequency of compliance checks and patrols is also increasing in the east of the region, and five new environment officers have been recruited this year to help manage water resources.

Their role includes identifying licence holders at risk of water restrictions and making them aware of the possible shortages. They will also carry out inspections in the riskier catchments where more intense abstraction takes place.

- Anyone suspected of abstracting water illegally should be reported to the Environment Agency hotline on 0800 807060.

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