Farmers’ leader calls for fair share of water

Farmers and growers across eastern England will be briefed about efforts to ease official restrictions at the third regional drought 'summit' at Newmarket on Monday.

Staff in the Environment Agency's eastern region have been praised by farmers for prompt action to allow some abstractors to fill winter storage reservoirs where flows have allowed.

While rain was recorded on Sunday and Monday across most of eastern England, north and east Norfolk has closer to two inches, the west of the county and south Lincolnshire has seen half this amount.

Farmers' leader Peter Kendall, who met abstractors from the River Nar catchment at Swaffham, said that the rain had been welcome but it had not been uniform.

'We've had 18mm at home in Bedfordshire and on another farm at Royston we had 13mm. And in parts of Suffolk and Essex, they've had 12mm to 15mm,' he added.

The latest Environment Agency fortnightly figures on the eastern area's soil moisture deficit was now 28.56mm, according to the hydrology team. There has been a slight reduction in Norfolk's deficit, which now stood at 32.5mm, Suffolk was 19.3mm and Essex 33mm.

In north Norfolk, estate manager Ross Haddow pumped from the River Glaven for the first time this winter. Until the weekend's two inches of rainfall, the storage reservoir on the Stody estate, near Melton Constable, which has capacity for about 10 million gallons, was half empty.

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'Now for the first time this winter we've got a smile on our faces,' said Mr Haddow.

Once the Environment Agency saw the improved river flow at the official gauging station upstream of the Hunny Bell pub, pumping could start. 'The agency read at 10m every day – we ring at 10.05am and confirm whether we can or can't pump,' he said.

And while flows have continued, it has been possible to pump about one million gallons a day for summer irrigation of crops. 'We're allowed to pump a maximum of 56 litres per second,' said Mr Haddow, who said that longer term more winter storage capacity was needed.

Meanwhile, he hoped that flows would continue so that the reservoir could be filled.

'We fully endorse that the EA have been doing everything they possibly can to help farmers,' he added.

Mr Kendall, who met west Suffolk and Cambridgeshire abstractors at the Duke of Grafton's Euston estate, near Thetford, said that the Environment Agency has reacted positively. 'There are some good examples, following the rain, where there's been a lifting of the restrictions and people can still pump,' he said.

One abstractor on the Nar had pumped for the first time this winter because licence holders had agreed to 'share' water, he was told at the Swaffham meeting.

Mr Kendall said: 'This is also about making the most of every drop. Whatever happens from here, we need to be using water in a smart way.

'We're getting messages that although the Environment Agency on the ground wants to be helpful, some of the processes they have to go through is slowing us down.

'In the longer term, the government needs to pull its finger out and seriously engage to enable the building of the infrastructure that we require.

'We need some long-term strategic thinking into water and prioritising food production around water and also getting a fair sharer of the available water.'

There was a message too that if farmers were voluntarily looking to make best use of water, then the same must apply to water companies too.

Mr Kendall stressed that water was vital to East Anglia's food and processing industries.

'It is a very important food production region but also agriculture is massively important to employment and income generation in East Anglia, ' he said.

While farmers recognised that they had to live with extreme weather events, the industry did not need additional challenges from government 'making life harder and changing the rules on taxation, for example'.

Mr Kendall was speaking at Stoke Ferry Agricultural Society's dinner at Downham Market Town Hall last night and presented awards.

n Pea growers in East Anglia expect to start the drilling programme for the vining pea crop next week. Broadland farmer Richard Hirst, chairman of the Anglian Pea Growers, said: 'We hope to start next week if the weather allows.'