How will Defra’s new ‘trickle irrigation’ licences affect East Anglia’s fruit farms?

PUBLISHED: 17:36 01 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:20 03 November 2017

Tim Place with strawberries grown under polytunnels at Place UK in Tunstead. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Tim Place with strawberries grown under polytunnels at Place UK in Tunstead. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE


Farmers using “trickle” irrigation systems will have limits enforced on their water usage for the first time – prompting concerns over the growth potential of East Anglian fruit producers.

Place UK uses a trickle irrigation system for its soft fruits. Pictured is Tim Place with the system in a raspberry polytunnel.   Picture: MARK BULLIMOREPlace UK uses a trickle irrigation system for its soft fruits. Pictured is Tim Place with the system in a raspberry polytunnel. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Defra says about 5,000 significant abstractors are exempt from current licensing rules, creating an “unfair playing field” while 20,000 licenced abstractors must water their crops within strict limits, designed to minimise environmental pressures in times of low rainfall.

So these exemptions are set to end, meaning users of trickle irrigation systems – which guide water to the roots of plants via precise networks of pipes rather than sprayers – must now apply for authorisations during a two-year window starting from January 1.

Applicants will need to prove their water requirements are consistent with peak abstractions during the previous seven years.

Among the growers affected will be Place UK at Tunstead, near Wroxham – one of Britain’s largest soft fruit suppliers, which has been using trickle irrigation since 1979.

Managing director Tim Place said his main concern is the possibility of “hands off flow” constraints which could shut down his water supply, without compensation, to protect the environment during low river flows and drought conditions.

“Because we grow protected cropping under polytunnels, we don’t get any rain at all,” he said. “Sometimes we are irrigating ten times a day – a very small amount, but very frequently. If we keep the root as dry as possible and just give water when it is needed, it is very efficient and we get a much better flavour in our strawberries.

“We also grow in grow-bags so the root cannot go down five metres to look for water. They are in a bag two inches deep and there is very little water there. So if we cannot irrigate for two days we will be dead. We abstract from groundwater sources, so we need to know where we stand on that.

READ MORE: Water trading could help farmers maximise value from irrigation resources

“We will try to be efficient if we can in future, but a limiting factor for the growth of our business will be the amount of water we can use. But I don’t think we can complain.

“We totally agree with trickle coming under the licensing regime. Water has got to be managed properly and it has got to be shared responsibly and we must not harm the environment.”


Defra’s response to its consultation on water licensing says: “As a result of competing demands for access to water for abstraction, areas of England and Wales are already experiencing water stress. Increasing demand for water from those outside of the current licensing system is exacerbating this position.

“We believe that all significant abstractors should be subject to regulation to help protect the water environment and make people’s rights to take water fairer. However, we recognise that exempt abstractors have operated lawfully and rely upon their access to water. Our intention is to balance the needs of all abstractors and the environment.”

“The UK and Welsh governments consider that applying these basic ‘hands off flow’ conditions provides basic protection for rivers during low flows and in drought conditions and places a proportionate responsibility of reducing unsustainable abstraction on abstractors being brought under licensing control.

“These conditions are meant to be more favourable to currently-exempt abstractors than conditions that are applied to licences for new abstractions, as this policy approach acknowledges that these are existing abstractions relied upon by business.”


The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has raised concerns that the protected and nursery stock sectors could be particularly affected by hands off flow constraints on new trickle irrigation licences.

Following the regulatory change, it also says the government should focus attention on how it can help growers cope with potential shortages of water for irrigation, such as reducing fiscal and regulatory barriers to reservoir construction projects.

It says the government should also consider how it can “best support increased use of rainwater harvesting by farmers and growers”.

Paul Hammett, the NFU’s water resources specialist, said he expects most existing trickle operations will be offered abstraction licences which meet their historic needs, but added: “Nevertheless, new licences could limit potential business growth if they are based on past water use rather than future potential need.”

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