Drought-hit farmers welcome flexibility over water abstraction during the heatwave

PUBLISHED: 17:21 01 August 2018 | UPDATED: 18:04 01 August 2018

A dry field near Colney.

A dry field near Colney. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

Farmers struggling in “unprecedented” hot, dry conditions have welcomed moves to give them more flexible access to water for their crops and livestock.

A combine harvester at work at Thrigby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYA combine harvester at work at Thrigby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The move by the Environment Agency (EA) will make it easier to trade water allowances between farmers to maximise supplies and help them make the most of extra water in rivers after heavy rain.

The EA may also permit farmers to take additional, emergency water if there is a “real or imminent threat to crops and livestock”, but officials stressed that any changes to abstraction licences will need to be approved on a case-by-case basis.

Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “We are working closely with the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) and the wider farming community to make sure farmers have access to water to produce food and run their businesses. We will provide flexible abstraction licensing where possible as long as we can be sure it does not adversely impact other water users and the environment.”

The changes were announced after the NFU met government agencies in London to discuss tinderbox conditions that have reduced grass growth and depleted crop yields.

NFU president Minette Batters said: “The abstraction is really welcome for our growers. All of these people are on contracts to supply so they need to be able to supply and they need to fulfil that requirement.”

Farmers also called for help to transport animal fodder across the country to areas where it is most needed, as a lack of grass in parched fields puts pressure on animal food supplies. Ms Batters said the situation was “unprecedented” in her lifetime, warning that the cost of remaining fodder supplies are “going through the roof”, with feeding dairy herds likely to cost an extra £60,000 per farm. “That will be more than the profit for the businesses,” she added.

Despite the weekend’s storms bringing the first rain in weeks, the long dry summer has sparked farming concerns across East Anglia including a shortage of forage for livestock, limited water to irrigate crops like potatoes and onions, and a risk of crop fires.

Cambridgeshire farmer Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said it is “vital” to relax the rules on water abstraction, and also called for early subsidy payments to help with cash-flow issues during the heatwave.

He said a long-term focus on water management was needed, adding: “We need investment now to secure future water supplies so that the impact of such extreme weather does not have a detrimental effect on food production and the environment over the next 50 years and more.”

The summit brought farming leaders together with representatives from Defra, the EA, Natural England, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and farming charities RABI and Farming Community Network to discuss ways to mitigate the impact of the ongoing heatwave.

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