Dry weather information and advice

10 August 2023

An image of spring wheat harvest on a farm in Staffordshire, August 2021

Our policy advisers have pulled together practical advice on a number of areas affected by ongoing dry weather conditions.

We are working on behalf of farmers and growers to mitigate the challenges posed by the prolonged period of dry weather.

Latest news

Watch again: East Anglia water situation meeting

Following several meetings, the Environment Agency provided a further update to the water situation to NFU members in East Anglia on 30 June 2023.

NFU members can log in to watch the meeting back here: East Anglia water situation meeting

As some parts of East Anglia remain in drought status this communication is vital as we move through the irrigation season.

The NFU and the Environment Agency will provide a further update at the end of July.

Dry weather update

On 24 May 2023 the National Drought Group met to discuss the response to dry weather. A number of topics, ranging on the current drought status, the Environment Agency's current work with water companies and abstractors, and the NFU's asks to the Environment Agency were discussed. 

NFU members can log in to read a report from the meeting: National Drought Group – June 2023 update

East Anglia Drought Situation

There are still three areas currently in drought status, these are: North West Norfolk, North Norfolk Rivers and Broadland Rivers. NFU members can refer to the May 2023 East Anglia Environment Agency briefing for more information.

Drought and Water resources

The Environment Agency has produced a summary document ‘Drought and Water Resources’ which contains useful links and information; you can find it at: GOV.UK | Creating a better place

Dry weather impacts on agri-environment schemes

Due to the dry weather in 2022 and following NFU lobbying, the government introduced derogations to enable Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship agreement holders to take steps such as cutting or grazing certain options to help ease shortages of bedding, fodder, grazing or forage crops. These derogations ended in 2022.

The Rural Payment Agency are keeping a watching brief on the drought situation and how this could affect delivery of agreements. At present (21 June 2023) there are no temporary derogations, and anyone concerned about the impact of the dry weather on their agreement should contact the RPA directly at: [email protected] or call 03000 200 301.

The RPA will advise on the best way forward. For example, the RPA may be able to offer an extension to an establishment date or direct an agreement holder to the minor and temporary adjustment process.

Further water management grant funding

Mr Exwood also welcomed the announcement that further rounds of funding for new applicants to the Farming Transformation Fund Water Management grant will open this autumn. However, he said that the NFU would like to see Defra’s regulators working together more efficiently to ensure the permissions and licences are delivered alongside the funding approval.

He said: “The weather over the past six months has highlighted the urgent need for government to take our national food production and resilience seriously by ensuring all departments across Whitehall give due regard to the impact of environmental policies on the country’s ability to produce food. Its agencies need to manage the nation’s water resources more effectively so we’re able to store and move water in times of plenty for use when there is scarcity.”

What we're asking the government to do

We're asking government agencies to:

  • Prepare for the rapid introduction of derogations to rules governing farmed environment schemes, should weather conditions thwart the delivery of agreed management prescriptions.
  • Deliver maximum and timely flexibility in the application of water abstraction rules to avoid wasting water that might otherwise run out to sea. For example, farmers should be permitted to abstract water during ‘flash’ high river flow events.

We are also highlighting the pressing need to equip farmers with tools to manage 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.

You can download and read our comprehensive briefing on our policy asks, plus an update on the current impacts on specific agricultural sectors here: NFU dry weather policy asks 2023

Our policy asks on water

We have strategic, longer term policy asks for delivering a resilient water supply for agriculture.

Essentially, these are to:

  • Develop long term, multi-sector collaborative plans for managing water scarcity and flooding events that link together the management of ‘too much’ and ‘not enough’ water.
  • Deliver a ‘fair share’ of water to farmers by recognising the food and farming sector as an essential user of water.
  • Ensure that the Government Food Strategy, in the context of international trade talks, acknowledges drought risk as a global issue. Since food imports could become increasingly vulnerable, we must recognise the comparative advantage of British agriculture in delivering national food security.
  • Take an agile approach to agricultural transition so that farm businesses avoid a cliff edge in their finances whilst trying to recover from extreme weather.
  • Create policy measures that replace previous support systems to help manage the impacts of weather and market-related volatility, including droughts and water-scarcity.
  • Introduce incentives through the tax system to encourage investment in infrastructure to mitigate against the impacts of floods and droughts such as farm reservoirs and equipment to improve water efficiency measures.

Our 2021 Integrated Water Management report sought to develop these policy asks in an integrated manner.

Managing water at infrastructure level

The NFU’s interest in infrastructure is broad. Agriculture is impacted by new road, rail and utilities infrastructure, which takes land out of production, and increasingly public building projects are looking for additional land as part of their environmental mitigation obligations.

We're calling for the government to demonstrate leadership in developing a framework for managing water, ensuring food production and water for animal welfare as an ‘essential water need’.

We need this to ensure farmers and growers have access to the water they require to rise to the challenge of feeding a growing population, which was recently set out in the government's Food Strategy

"We have to keep water flowing in extreme circumstances, prioritising hospitals and parts of industry and farming."
Sir John Armitt, National Infrastructure Commission chair

Read: Sky news | Bills must rise to pay for water security and avoid emergency supply handouts, infrastructure chief warns

In addition, the Defra Plan for Water commits to “at a minimum, maintain the current level of food we produce domestically” and it states that water “is vital for food security”.  

The Farm to Fork Summit held at Downing Street during 2023 made it clear that there will be announcements covering water resources and the agriculture sector, and the NFU will be following up conversations to progress these commitments from Government. You can read more on this at: GOV.UK | Update on the UK Farm to Fork Summit

Our Integrated Water Management report states cooperation and collaboration within the farming community, and with other sectors such as water companies, will be vital in our response to managing extremes and in improving the quality of our water.

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Water supply for farming

We cannot and should not be complacent about our ability to produce food.

The NFU's participation in the NDG (National Drought Group) brings us together with governments and their agencies, water companies, the energy sector and environmental NGOs to discuss the concerns in an integrated forum. In addition the NFU co-chairs the National Drought Group sub group for Agriculture and the Environment. 

The NFU meets regularly as part of the NDG which includes organisations such as the Environment Agency, Natural England, public water companies, the Met Office, Ofwat, and Water UK, as well as government departments including Defra and the Cabinet Office.

The NDG provides a cross-sector strategic steer to the management of drought events in England and Wales. The group works constructively and collaboratively during times of significant water scarcity to minimise the impacts on people, economy, industry and the environment through strategic co-ordination, innovation and evidence-based outcomes that strengthen existing drought plans and drive behaviour change.

The sub group of the Environment and Agriculture/Land Management sectors contribute to a common understanding across their respective sectors, sharing and receiving the most up-to-date picture to identify short- and medium-term needs to overcome impacts. The NFU chairs this working group on an alternate basis with Angling Trust/Blueprint for Water.

Due to the challenging times, the NDG and the NDG sub group have agreed to meet monthly for the foreseeable. This will allow continued discussions across organisations and sectors.

In addition to the NDG, the NFU's water issues group meets regularly to discuss all things water related. This group consists of regional advisers and sector heads and ensures concerns and actions are collated and fed into conversations with regulators and government and through the NDG meetings.

We are keen to promote policies that link food security to water security, and policies that recognise water as an essential element of food production.

Further information can be found below:

What to do if you're experiencing water supply issues

It is essential to have a plan in place for if your farm loses access to water.

Extreme weather and temperature changes can make your farm vulnerable to water supply interruptions.

With threats such as freeze-thaw, droughts and heatwaves being key factors in water supply disruptions, it's important to stay one step ahead.

This is particularly the case if you farm livestock. For instance, lactating cows need between 60 and 100 litres of water per day, while lactating sows and gilts may require 15 to 30 litres per day.

We've put together a guide in partnership with the AHDB and Water UK, which provides useful advice and explains the support you can expect from your supplier.

Visit the AHDB website to read it: AHDB | Water supply problems? A guide for livestock farms

Further information is provided by the Drinking Water Inspectorate at: GOV.UK | Managing insufficiency of private water supplies

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Abstraction licences

If you have a licence to abstract water, download our NFU guidance on EA abstraction licences briefing, which provides more information on:

  • Drought planning, legislation and triggers, and the responsibilities of the relevant authorities
  • EA drought management stages and actions
  • Spray irrigation restrictions
  • Drought orders, procedures and objections

Abstraction licensing flexibility

Abstraction is primarily controlled by conditions on licences. Licence holders must ensure that they adhere to these at all times.

The NFU encourages all abstractors to regularly review their licences to ensure that they continue to meet their needs for long term resilience. 

During the dry weather period, the NFU is encouraging abstractors to review their needs individually and collaboratively. Where there are a number of abstractors within one water body, an Environment Agency (EA) local enforcement position may be able to authorise the aggregated sharing of licence volume, provided that there is no impact on other abstractors or the environment.

This is a temporary position and would be reviewed on a case by case basis, by request to the Environment Agency. There is no guarantee this would be available.

The EA has powers to restrict the abstraction of water for irrigation from rivers, streams and underground sources, and will use those powers should the situation become critical.

If such a situation arises, however, the EA will always seek to achieve as much as possible through voluntary savings before imposing formal restrictions. Total irrigation bans will only be used as a last resort.

During dry weather events, we work closely with the EA on its ‘flexible abstraction’ position which can change as circumstances change. This includes securing water for the current season but also, water for winter storage reservoir fill, ready for next season.

If you are concerned about water availability, the advice is to contact your EA local area representative. You can find contact details for your local area here: EA dry weather contacts

Examples of evidence to support requests

If you are looking at options such as trading abstraction licence unused volumes, the EA requires evidence to support your request. This evidence could include:

  • That it is required for a period of less than eight weeks.
  • Demonstrating the need for the water was above the planned forecast.
  • The need for the additional water was not a result of speculative decision making where water requirements were not properly factored into cropping needs.

For repeat requests, evidence could also include:

  • You have applied for an abstraction licence which has not yet been determined.
  • You are already actively engaged with National Permitting Services in pre-application discussions.
  • There is other evidence that a strategic solution is being put in place (e.g. applications for planning permission for a storage reservoir, or draft commercial arrangements with other abstractors to share water).

Each case will be assessed individually by the EA with regard to the local water availability situation. The EA has a legal obligation not to allow deterioration (environmental damage).

Further guidance

On 22 May 2023, the Environment Agency provided a Drought Briefing for East Anglia which provides the current position.

Guidance is also available from the EA at the GOV.UK website:

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Cross compliance: water abstraction and irrigation

Our BPS experts have put together a useful reminder on the cross compliance rules and water abstraction/irrigation.

The guide covers what is considered traditional water abstraction for crop use, as well as changes in recent years to the scope of what is defined as abstraction, for example diversion of water to create or enhance habitat, which may be as a result of participation in an agri-environment scheme.

We advise members with abstraction licences to carefully consider the management of their licence – especially where the licence is held by the landowner and the irrigation licence is used by a contract crop grower for example. All licences and any associated agreements around their use should be kept under regular review, especially as we enter another challenging growing season.

You can find more information on dealing with extreme heat and the impact on cross compliance at: GOV.UK | Extreme heat advice for farmers and land managers

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Dry weather and supply contracts

Many supply contracts contain clauses which seek to deal with situations where particular events occur which are outside the control of the parties. These are most commonly referred to as ‘force majeure’ clauses.

Our legal team has created a briefing providing general guidance on some key contractual principles which may be relevant.

Read our guide on extreme weather and supply contracts – are you covered?

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AHDB impact assessment and resources

There is a lot of useful information at the AHDB website.

On the pages below you'll find cross-sector analysis of the potential market impact of this weather as well as advice on planning for and coping with weather events of all kinds.

The latest grass growth and quality figures can be found on AHDB's interactive Forage for Knowledge dashboard, along with the latest updates and resources.

You can also sign up to receive weekly Forage for Knowledge newsletters at the AHDB's Keeping in touch web page.

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UK Water Resources Portal

Developed by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), the UK Water Resources Portal is a web-based tool bringing together a wealth of information on the latest hydrological situation across the UK.

It is useful for farmers and growers because it can help you to monitor and understand the current state of water resources in your local area, as well as at the regional and national scale.

The portal provides the most up-to-date available data on river flows, rainfall, soil moisture and groundwater levels from a local to a national scale, with users able to view measurements in any part of the country by clicking on an interactive map.

In addition to providing an indication of current water resources status, and early warning of potential drought or flood conditions, it also has historical records that enable comparisons to be made with long-term averages and previous significant events from the past 50 years.

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