Farmers angered as water licences revoked to protect rare wildlife

Broadland farmer Nick Deane is concerned about the Environment Agency's decision to revoke abstraction licences

Broadland farmer Nick Deane is concerned about the Environment Agency's decision to revoke abstraction licences used for irrigating farm crops in the Ant Valley - Credit: Archant

Water abstraction rights will be withdrawn to protect rare wildlife in the Norfolk Broads - provoking anger and concern from farmers over irrigation supplies.

The Environment Agency (EA) has announced it will "revoke, reduce or constrain" licences held by 20 businesses in the Ant Valley, meaning farmers will need to "develop alternative and more sustainable sources of water, rather than take it from rivers, lakes or groundwater".

It said the river valley faces "significant water pressures", with evidence showing that current abstraction levels may be causing damage to an environment which is home to rare wildlife and a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Water abstraction licences are being reviewed to protect rare wildlife and habitats in the Ant Valley

Water abstraction licences are being reviewed to protect rare wildlife and habitats in the Ant Valley - Credit: James Bass

The agency says the changes will return up to three billion litres of water to the environment each year, benefiting species including swallowtail butterflies, Norfolk hawker dragonflies and rare plants such as the fen orchid, which is rarely found outside of the Ant Valley.

But some farmers in the area claim they could lose revenue worth tens of thousands of pounds a year if they are unable to access water to irrigate thirsty, high-value crops.

The new regime will be implemented in 2024 to give licence-holders time to adapt. But farming leaders said that is not enough time to install reservoirs which could capture water during winter peak flows, rather than risking depleting rivers during the dry summers. 

Nick Deane of Bure Farm Services is a former Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU)

Nick Deane of Bure Farm Services is a former Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) - Credit: Chris Hill

Hoveton farmer Nick Deane, a former chairman of the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), manages two farms whose licences are affected.

"My reaction is one of real concern, as there are some really serious implications for some businesses with the depth and breadth of these cuts," he said.

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"The real frustration is that there is a way to do this where everybody can get what they need - businesses, the environment, and the community.

"It had already started - BAWAG (the Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors Group) had proposed a catchment management strategy for the region, but what that needs is time.

"2024 is only three winters away, but to build reservoirs we need things like planning permission and a licence from the agency. We know where to put these reservoirs, but typically a planning application will take two years to come through, so even if we act now it is already 2023 before we can start building. They have not given us enough time. 

"We live and work in this environment, so of course we want to protect it. If the EA can prove there is a risk, then we need more time to get surface water reservoirs built."

Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the NFU, said the review also did not consider alternative evidence on the impact of agricultural abstraction, adding: “The EA’s decision to revoke and change a series of historic water rights flies in the face of independent evidence we and local abstractors have provided, which clearly demonstrates that the local fen ecology is improving.

“We welcome the EA’s decision to delay the implementation of its proposed changes until 2024 but this will only be of value if farmers can use the time to install alternative water sources on farms, such as new reservoirs to capture surplus water."

EA chief executive James Bevan said: “If we don’t address these pressures now, the additional challenges from the climate emergency will bring even greater impacts on the environment and our water resources in the future."

Tim and Geli Harris, owners of Catfield Fen

Tim and Geli Harris, owners of Catfield Fen - Credit: James Bass

While conservationists welcomed the decision, there were also calls for a wider water review from Catfield Fen owner Tim Harris, whose eight-year legal campaign to stop neighbouring farmers abstracting water set the tone for the current licensing shake-up.

"Of course it is good news that the EA is looking at this issue, but we don't know if what they have come up with is enough, because they have not shown us the detail," he said.

"But what is very clear is that it is not credible to believe that this issue is restricted to the Ant Valley - they should be looking further afield, at the whole of the Broads."

An irrigation sprinkler at work as the sunsets over King's Lynn. Picture: Ian Burt.

Water abstraction licences for irrigating farm crops are being revoked or reduced in the Ant Valley in the Norfolk Broads - Credit: Ian Burt


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