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'This will reduce our income by £80,000 a year' - Broadland farmers' concerns over water licence threat

PUBLISHED: 09:30 29 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:30 29 March 2019

Norfolk farmers Nick Deane (left) and Gavin Paterson are concerned about the potential loss of their water abstraction licences. They are pictured at the reservoir at Worstead Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

Norfolk farmers Nick Deane (left) and Gavin Paterson are concerned about the potential loss of their water abstraction licences. They are pictured at the reservoir at Worstead Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

Chris Hill

Farmers say the “combative” review of water abstraction in the Broads is failing to assess both economic and ecological needs – with one claiming the loss of his licences would cost his business £80,000 a year.

Irrigation licences are under threat in the Ant Valley. Picture: James BassIrrigation licences are under threat in the Ant Valley. Picture: James Bass

Growers in the Ant Valley were told in January that 24 irrigation licences were under threat as the Environment Agency (EA) sought to balance finite water resources and protect designated habitats and species.

But while conservation campaigners point to evidence of the degradation and increasing salinity of rare fens, farmers say the agency cannot prove definitively that abstraction is to blame – and they are angry that licences vital to their business could be taken away as a “precautionary” measure.

Gavin Paterson, of Worstead Farms, said two of his four licences are at risk of being revoked.

Both are from groundwater sources, he said, which provide the clean water necessary for salad crops, as reservoir water can be contaminated with bacteria and bird droppings which make it unsuitable for irrigating onto edible leaves.

Irrigation licences are under threat in the Ant Valley. Picture: Ian Burt.Irrigation licences are under threat in the Ant Valley. Picture: Ian Burt.

Despite investing money in converting fields for organic salads, he says he will not be able to rent the land to growers without the necessary water supply, which he estimates will cost the farm £80,000 a year.

“One thing I’ve been very disappointed with is that the EA have told us several times that they are not prepared to consider any economic impact,” he said. “They have to consider the ecology. But I think to be able to understand that balance, you need to do that assessment.

“There is something called the ‘precautionary principle’ and that’s given them the idea they don’t need to show anything is having an impact, they just need to show it is a possibility, and then they can take action.

“But if you take that to its logical conclusion they could stop any abstraction for any use. It is not workable, but that’s the position they are taking.

“The Environment Agency cannot say if our licenses are materially effecting the ecology in Broad Fen. However, loss of our threatened licenses will reduce our farm income by £80,000. This cannot be equitable and is adding to a very uncertain economic landscape that is making investment impossible. We spent £40,000 on refurbishing our borehole last year as our license is due to expire in 2024, it now looks like that investment will be lost with no compensation.”

READ MORE: ‘The Broads are being destroyed before our eyes’, says Catfield Fen campaigner

To compound the problem, Mr Paterson said he is not being offered the flexibility to transfer capacity to his winter surface water licence instead to allow him to fill his reservoir during peak winter river flows.

“We are in the fortunate position of having a winter storage reservoir and alternative sources of water,” he said. “However, the Environment Agency are not willing to allow us to move our threatened licensed amount to these alternative sources in order to protect Broad Fen, our business and local employment. I believe that this approach is unnecessarily combative and is likely to waste considerable sums of public money in the appeals process.”

READ MORE: Michael Gove told: Loss of water licences would ‘destroy’ Norfolk farms

Hoveton farmer Nick Deane, who is also chairman of the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), could also lose two of the four abstraction licences his business has access to, which he said could affect his ability to grow thirsty crops such as potatoes.

“One of the questions we are asking is: where is the evidence?” he said. “Because they have done, in our opinion, some very sketchy surveys. And if there is some evidence [of environmental damage], what is the evidence linking it to abstraction?

“We would like to see a more conciliatory, constructive approach so both sides can benefit. We need to have the evidence to show that abstraction is causing as serious an impact has been suggested.

“We are very lucky to live in one of Europe’s most special wetland habitats and we would never want to be seen to be destroying it or causing problems for future generations.

“But our appeal is let’s think about this together. This water is a national resource and a local resource, and we all need it, so let’s think about it together, both in terms of the environment and profitable agriculture, and use our resources appropriately.”

ENVIRONMENT AGENCY RESPONSE

An Environment Agency spokesman said the agency aims to “treat all abstractors and sectors equitably” in meeting its environmental goals.

“We recognise the importance of secure supplies of water for people, business and agriculture,” he said. “We always work to identify a solution which has the least disruption possible on those individuals concerned. However, there is limited scope within the legislation which protects designated habitats and species for the economic or social impacts to override the importance of the sites that we are trying to protect.”

Responding to the criticism that the EA does not have enough definitive evidence to prove abstraction is damaging the surrounding fens, the spokesman said: “We work closely with Natural England who have been able to confirm that there are some areas within The Broads Special Area of Conservation, where the ecology is not in as good a condition as it should be.

“They have used evidence that has been gathered over the last two decades and also by carrying out more recent site visits in December last year. The time of year did not prevent them from being able to identify a trend of decline over time and link this to hydrological stress.”

The Environment Agency is exploring alternative proposals to assess if wider-scale licence reductions, rather than removals, can deliver its conservation objectives. That modelling will be complete by the end of May, and the agency expects to confirm final decisions on any licence changes in June.

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