NFU joins National Drought Group meeting to prepare for summer

Vice President Stuart Roberts at a farm in Hertfordshire

The NFU joined representatives from Defra, the Environment Agency, public water companies and the environmental sector on 5 June as the National Drought Group reviewed the latest situation and prepared for the possibility of a challenging summer of dry weather and increased water demand.

Following the extremely wet winter which replenished depleted groundwater aquifers, a period of prolonged hot and dry weather has rapidly reduced river flows and dried out soils. This is particularly the case in areas such as north-west England which are more reliant on surface water supplies, making them naturally less resilient to exceptionally low rainfall.

NFU members: Click here for the NFU's report on the dry weather in June

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NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts represented the farming sector at the meeting. Describing how we have fluctuated from water surplus to scarcity in a matter of weeks, he said that farm businesses across the country are struggling to cope with this rapid succession of extreme weather events.

Mr Roberts described an increasingly serious situation for rain-fed grass, fodder and cereal crops. Pig and poultry farms face potential bedding shortages from reduced availability of both straw and, due to COVID-19 related factory closures, wood shavings. And with the irrigation season starting earlier than normal, there are early concerns that growers could run out of water later in the season and before crop harvest.

Mr Roberts said:

“Many farmers are already feeling the effects of a dry April and May with some cereal crops already suffering from this early dry spell. The irrigation season has started early for some and it is fortunate that, as a result of widespread heavy winter rainfall, which was a problem for many, reservoirs were filled. At the moment there is generally good water availability from both groundwater and surface water sources, although these are being closely monitored.

“With irrigators working flat out across the country, and in addition to the significant disruption caused by COVID-19, it could shape up to be an extremely challenging season for farmers and growers. Farmers are closely following predictions of possible hot, dry spells in the weeks ahead and what this could mean for water availability, especially with livestock now turned out to graze and harvest not far away."

NFU priorities and asks

The NFU carried out a ‘lessons learned’ exercise following the 2018 drought and its priority ‘asks’ were tabled at the Drought Group meeting in the expectation that measures could be put in place as and when needed.

The NFU has asked for:

  • Assurances that BPS and agri-environment scheme agreements will be paid promptly.
  • The rapid introduction of derogations to rules governing farming and environment schemes should weather conditions thwart the delivery of agreed management prescriptions.
  • Agile and flexible application of water abstraction rules that avoid wasting water which might otherwise run out to sea. For example, farmers should be permitted to abstract water during ‘flash’ high river flow events.
  • Action to control the use of disposable BBQs in ‘sensitive’ locations such as mountains and moors to reduce the ongoing risk of wildfires and a review of the Met Office’s Fire Severity Index (FSI).

The NFU has also flagged the need for a flexible, pragmatic and tolerant approach to crop quality specifications where produce falls below normal high standards.

Picture of a dripping tap

Increased household demand

Almost all water companies have experienced elevated household demand due to both the recent hot, dry weather and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In some cases this has created a challenge for companies to treat and distribute enough water to meet demand and in some areas farms, which tend to be at the end of the mains pipe, have suffered supply disruptions because of falling pressures.

Water companies warn that high demand is expected to continue as more people stay at home over the summer compared to previous years. Water companies will need to continue to focus their efforts on driving down water demand, driving down leakage and maximising their networks. Companies said that they will continue to work with farmers to share the water that is available.

The NFU remains concerned that water supplies to homes and gardens will continue unrestricted while farms run out of water and has called for ‘water for food’ production to be recognised as an essential water use.

All sectors agree on the importance of urging everyone to think about where their water comes from and to use it more efficiently. The common message to the public is that water keeps our local rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and taps flowing; it provides life to nature as well as to ourselves and livelihoods to farmers.

The future

The NFU believes that there is a pressing need to help farmers to save water and equip them with tools to manage extreme weather events. Continued research programmes with knowledge transfer and advisory packages can help farmers to mitigate and adapt to climate change and extreme weather events by:

  • Adopting on-farm drought risk management and contingency planning such as more efficient water use, rainwater harvesting, separating potable and non-potable water use, locating and repairing leaking pipes.
  • Developing best practice in resource management of resources especially fodder and soil, for example cultivation techniques that lock in soil moisture and the increased use of more drought tolerant grass and forage crop mixes.
  • Improved strategic planning of straw supply and demand, uniting the supply chain.

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