Dry weather information and advice

Environment and climate
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.

Latest news

We have seen exceptionally high levels of rainfall over the last winter and continue to see higher than average levels in spring 2024.

However, hotter weather has seen soil moisture deficit levels increase as we move into summer and periods of hot dry weather can cause acute stress in crops and animals.

Water sources for irrigation remain mostly well stocked, but dry periods where abstraction sources respond rapidly to climatic conditions can see hands-off-flow restrictions applied for localised areas.

For the latest information on rainfall see the Environment Agency monthly reports. The Farming Advisory Service also produces regular reports on irrigation prospects.

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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.

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Our policy asks on water

We have strategic, long-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.

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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."

National Infrastructure Commission chair Sir John Armitt

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’.  

Following up commitments made at the 2023 Farm to Fork summit the government has the government has committed £1.6 million to help farmers manage water resources. The NFU has followed up these conversations at the 2024 summit and will continue to do so with the new administration.

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.

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.

There is also guidance from the RPA on extreme weather events for farmers and land managers: GOV.UK | Extreme heat advice for farmers and land managers.

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

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Extreme weather impacts on agri-environment schemes

The RPA (Rural Payment Agency) is keeping a watching brief on extreme weather situations and how this could affect delivery of agreements.

Earlier this year, the RPA introduced temporary adjustments to more than 40 agri-environment scheme options which may have been impacted by the wet spring and winter. A similar approach was taken in 2022 due to the dry weather.

Anyone concerned about the impacts of extreme weather on the delivery of the options or actions in their agreement should familiarise themselves with the recent temporary adjustments to see if this applies to their situation.

If they aren’t applicable, it’s important to contact the RPA as soon possible: [email protected] or call 03000 200 301.

The RPA will advise on the best way forward e.g. a minor or temporary change to an agreement. 

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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 an extended 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 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.

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.

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

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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 on 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, 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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This page was first published on 10 August 2023. It was updated on 27 June 2024.

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