Cattle farmer raises drainage concerns for grazing land in Wensum valley

Cattle farmer Peter Howell by the River Wensum near North Elmham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Cattle farmer Peter Howell by the River Wensum near North Elmham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

One of the warmest and wettest winters of the last century has created challenges across many agricultural sectors – with high river levels and waterlogged land a particular concern for cattle farmers.

Some of Peter Howell's beef cattle. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Some of Peter Howell's beef cattle. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Of all the variables which decide the viability of a farming year, the weather has always held the whip hand.

But this year, the unpredictable climate has served up a winter which, according to Met Office statistics, was England's warmest since records began in 1910, and the second wettest on record across the UK.

It is a combination which has left waterways full to bursting point – a problem which a mid Norfolk cattle farmer says is made worse by a lack of drainage along one of the county's most important rivers.

Peter Howell, of E Howell and Sons based at Bintree near Fakenham, has more than 300 acres of grazing land alongside the Wensum, near Guist and North Elmham.

A drainage ditch at full capacity on Peter Howell's land near North Elmham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A drainage ditch at full capacity on Peter Howell's land near North Elmham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

He would usually hope to get part of his 500-strong beef herd onto the land in the first week of April – but this year, the ground has become so wet that he expects it could be the start of May before his animals are able to feed on the grass, with the delay adding to his production costs.

And he has questioned why the drainage rates, which he pays to the Environment Agency, have not succeeded in keeping the water flow running smoothly.

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'We are paying £4,000 a year in drainage rates and getting nothing in return,' he said. 'It is a large burden on us.

'The conservationists think they are entitled to all the money, but it is not a conservation support scheme, it is a drainage scheme.

'They don't wish to see any dredging done on the rivers. They take every opportunity to spend the money on various schemes, putting shingle in the bottom of the river for the fish, and narrowing the river and slowing the flow.

'I would like to see the rivers maintained a lot better than they are at the moment. We don't meed to dredge everything in sight and make them barren, but if you dredge one bank at a time and then leave it for five or six years it will allow wildlife to flourish, plus keeping the water flow going.'

Mr Howell said cattle farmers aimed to graze their animals as soon as possible in the season to take advantage of the early grass – and the delay could cost as much as £25 per head.

'While it may seem a small sum, it could be the difference between profit and loss,' he said. 'The margins are tight on beef. We are seeing dairy herds being devastated and, with such a fine margin on the beef job, we don't want to follow suit.

'The river was over the top a few days ago. You can see how narrow it is.

'All the small drainage dykes cannot discharge into the river because the river level is higher than the drains are. We are paying the rates but we don't get any benefit.'

The General Drainage Charge, introduced in 1963, is a statutory levy payable by the occupiers of agricultural land which is not within an Internal Drainage Board district.

An Environment Agency spokesman said: 'General Drainage Charges paid by landowners help fund Environment Agency maintenance of flood and coastal risk assets.

'Funds are used within associated catchments and payment neither promises specific benefit to individual occupiers from works carried out, nor entitles them to specific works being carried out on their land.

'The Environment Agency's maintenance programmes are funded from three or four sources. Nationally, through Flood and Coastal Risk Management Grant in Aid (FDGiA), locally through Internal Drainage Board Precepts, General Drainage Charge and also increasingly through Local Levy.

'FDGiA is spent where it protects most people and property. The General Drainage Charge, in part, helps to redress this balance for rural areas.

'It contributes to additional maintenance that wouldn't have been affordable with national funding alone and includes dredging, weed clearance and work to keep structures operable to enable drainage through a catchment in more rural systems.'

While the main river is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, many of its tributaries are managed by the Norfolk Rivers Internal Drainage Board (IDB), part of the Water Management Alliance.

The IDB undertakes regular maintenance of the drainage infrastructure, and is also involved in a longer-term restoration project on the Wensum.

A spokesman for the IDB said: 'The River Wensum is a protected area (SAC) and options are therefore very limited when it comes to being able to carry out traditional maintenance operations to improve conveyance. However, the restoration project will help the river become more self-maintaining when completed, which, alongside a well-defined targeted maintenance programme should restore conveyance and ensure compliance with the Water Framework Directive.'

Farm schedules redrawn by the weather

Cattle farmers are not the only food producers who have struggled with an exceptionally warm and wet winter.

The conditions have resulted in delays getting machinery onto sodden ground to plant spring crops, as well as storage and quality issues for potatoes and sugar beet.

Teddy Maufe, a tenant on the Holkham estate near Wells, grows 160 acres of Concerto malting barley at Branthill Farm, destined for Southwold brewer Adnams.

He said his light sandy soil was usually more prone to drought than water-logging, but the farm had endured its wettest winter for 40 years, meaning the crop was planted .

'I usually like to drill my spring barley in February, and we drilled it last week, so it was two or three weeks late,' he said. 'After our wettest winter for 40 years the soil is incredibly wet underneath and we had that week in March where we had two inches of rain.

'You can do a lot of soil damage by running machinery on soils which are wet underneath. Spring barley drilling was very frustrating, but we felt that the compromise was about right.

'It is swings and roundabouts. You could argue there is more water down there to help the plants to grow.'

Mr Maufe said the farm has also been delayed from drilling its sugar beet, which he had hoped to complete on Good Friday, until the storms struck over the Easter weekend.

The effect of the weather on the region's sugar beet production can be seen in the review of the campaign at the four British Sugar processing factories at Cantley and Wissington in Norfolk, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and Newark in Nottinghamshire.

A total of 221,797 loads were delivered in 2015/16 compared to 332,947 the previous year, with the average sugar percentage at 17.29pc, and the dirt percentage at 5.62pc – up from 5.4pc the previous year.

Donald Hume, the NFU beet intake manager for the four factory sites, said: 'The reduction in the number of loads delivered during this campaign in comparison with last campaign is purely a function of a reduction of overall contract tonnage (20pc) which was made up of some growers taking a contract holiday as well as an enforced contract cut across all growers. The variance shown in sugar and dirt tares is truly a reflection on the weather conditions during each of the campaigns.

'Beet supply was a bit of a problem this campaign with the land getting very wet and problems with harvesters operating in these sort of conditions.'

Many the region's potato growers have also been forced to delay planting this season's crop.

They reported problems keeping temperatures down in potato stores during the mild winter, prompting higher refrigeration costs and more spoiled produce.