Drought and fire risks remain a major concern for East Anglia's farmers after this week's devastating heatwave hammered home a stark climate change wake-up call.

As the extreme heat neared 40 degrees on Tuesday, it sparked ferocious fires which tore through homes, wildlife havens and acres of arable land.

Many started in tinder-dry fields including wild grassland, cereal crops and post-harvest stubble.

Eastern Daily Press: A field fire in Hopton has closed the A47A field fire in Hopton has closed the A47 (Image: Trevor Fuller Photography)

It was a frightening illustration of the realities of climate change - and scientists predict these events will become increasingly frequent as the planet warms.

But although the peak of the extreme heat has passed for now, farmers were warned that the fire risk remains, water availability is still an issue - and climate change remains a fundamental and urgent challenge for the industry.

Kelly Hewson-Fisher, national water specialist for the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: "The risk of fire is still extremely high. We have got some very dry crops out there.

"Something like a dropped match or a smouldering barbecue is all that is needed to start a serious blaze."

Insurers at NFU Mutual said it was too early to estimate the cost of crop losses from this week's farm fires - but in 2020, the firm saw claims totalling £69m.

Visitors to the countryside were reminded that field fires can be started by discarded cigarettes or barbecues, while glass bottles can ignite crops and dry vegetation by focusing and concentrating the sun's rays.

Blazes can also be ignited by machinery striking flints and stones during the course of harvesting.

Fire chiefs have urged farmers to help reduce fire risks by removing hay and straw from the fields as soon as possible after harvesting, keeping a break of at least 10m between stacks, and storing away from other buildings, especially those containing livestock, fuel or chemicals.

Advice to prevent machinery fires includes fitting fire suppression systems, and to regularly to clear dust and chaff from hot spots in combines and balers.

Meanwhile, the prolonged dry weather has prompted the Environment Agency to take action due to river flows and some groundwater levels falling "below normal" in the Broadland rivers area and parts of East Suffolk and Essex.

It said abstraction licence holders in affected areas may receive notice to restrict the amount of water they can take, to minimise impacts on the environment and the risk of further deterioration.

This may include reducing quantities or only abstracting at specific times of the day, depending on local circumstances.

Eastern Daily Press: Kelly Hewson-Fisher is the new national water specialist for the National Farmers' Union (NFU)Kelly Hewson-Fisher is the new national water specialist for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) (Image: Kelly Hewson-Fisher)

Mrs Hewson-Fisher said more measures could follow if the situation did not improve.

"The water resources challenge is very real and very significant," she said.

"We are into the harvest season for cereals, there have been reports of sugar beet starting to wilt in these high temperatures and irrigation is not always available.

"So there could be an impact on sugar beet yield - as there could be with field vegetables, potatoes and onions - in terms of quality and quantity if we don't have irrigation water available, and if we don't get the rain we need."

She added the farming sector is working on longer-term solutions with other water users through the Water Resources East partnership.

"That is long-term multi-sector planning, but the current situation has very immediate timescales," she said.

"These situations are coming around more often, so we need to build resilience into the sector to ensure we can meet the requirements for water for all objectives."

A climate change wake-up call

This week's heatwave prompted warnings from scientists that record-breaking temperatures will become more frequent.

Met Office chief scientist Prof Stephen Belcher said a "very high emissions scenario" could see temperatures exceeding 40 degrees "as frequently as every three years by the end of the century in the UK".

He added: "Reducing carbon emissions will help to reduce the frequency, but we will still continue to see some occurrences of temperatures exceeding 40 degrees and the UK will need to adapt to these extreme events.”

Eastern Daily Press: Rob Wise, environment adviser for NFU East AngliaRob Wise, environment adviser for NFU East Anglia (Image: NFU)

Rob Wise, East Anglia environment adviser for the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said some of the efforts being made in the farming industry to reduce emissions could also help mitigate the risk from drought and fires.

"This week has been evidence of what climate scientists have been predicting as likely to happen for a long time, coming to fruition", he said.

"It re-emphasises the need for all parts of society to take climate change seriously, including the agriculture sector.

"Some of the ways in which we are aiming to achieve 'net zero' by 2040, to improve productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will actually also help farmers cope with the extremes of weather we are experiencing.

"For example, the plant breeding programmes at places like the John Innes Centre [in Norwich] and Rothamsted Research that are looking for drought resistant crops - not only are these scientists looking at low water availability, but also crops growing in higher temperatures.

"The win-win is that it helps crops survive when we have these more extreme weather events that we have just witnessed.

"Also, the sort of things we are doing around carbon storage and improving soil carbon health are also coincidentally going to improve the ability for crops to withstand the heat, and reduce fire risks.

"The best example is farmers making sure they have got green cover in their rotation, so the land is always growing something.

"We will find that when some of these hot weather events occur outside the height of summer, we will have a more verdant and less dry landscape, which should reduce fire risk.

"That is not to say it would reduce the risk at this point of the harvest cycle, but these heat extremes are not just in July and August, and certainly there will be more moisture in the cycle across the year.

"The sort of things I am talking about in terms of breeding programmes and regenerative techniques could increase water retention in the field and reduce the need for irrigation, but also keep things moist for longer in terms of reducing fire risks."