Dry weather information and advice

26 July 2022

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.

On this page, you'll find information on:

At the bottom of this page, or by following these links, you'll find other relevant information on NFUonline:

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 2022

Water supply for farming

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

Met Office figures for July 2022 show only 24% of the amount of rainfall seen on average during July. You can read more about this at GOV.UK: Met Office official blog | July 2022: a dry run for UK’s future climate? 

The NFU's participation in the NDG (National Drought Group) (see below for more information on the NDG) brings us together with governments and their agencies, water companies, the energy sector and environmental NGOs to discuss the concerns in an integrated forum.

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.

You can download and read our previous report: Learning lessons from the 2018 agricultural drought

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.

National Drought Group meetings

The NFU meets regularly as part of this group, 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.

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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

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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.

The EA (Environment Agency) 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.

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

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 briefing to provide a useful reminder on the cross compliance rules and water abstraction/irrigation.

The briefing 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 read more in our comprehensive briefing document: NFU briefing on cross compliance and irrigation July 2022

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AHDB impact assessment and resources

There is a lot of useful information at the AHDB website: AHDB | Knowledge Library | Weather

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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In the media – how we're communicating the issues

The record-breaking temperatures, and a meeting of the National Drought Group on 26 July 2022, led journalists and reporters to ask how farmers and growers were being impacted by the heatwave. Our press team made sure that farming voices were being heard across broadcast and print media.  

Initially, our Suffolk county chair Andrew Blenkiron, director of the Euston Estate near Thetford, spoke to the media about how his crops were being affected. He was interviewed live on BBC Breakfast, Talk TV and TalkRadio, and was quoted in the Daily Mail highlighting how irrigation was adding to the estate’s higher than normal costs. Andrew also appeared on Channel 4 News (from 15:20) discussing the investment needed in water storage.

NFU President Minette Batters appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (from 1:23:50) highlighting water security and the spiralling costs farmers are facing. East Midlands member Andrew Ward was also on the show, discussing the impact on his crops. NFU Environment Forum chair Richard Bramley spoke to the Evening Standard and BBC News.

Meanwhile, some farmers were coming up with novel ways of keeping their livestock cool. NFU Dairy Board vice chair Paul Tompkins decided to install a sprinkler system in the milking parlour. He explained all on BBC World Service (from 7:30). Paul and NFU Livestock Board vice chair David Barton were both quoted in the Independent discussing the measures they’ve been taking to keep their animals comfortable.

Minette was quoted in articles on BBC News online and in the Evening Standard saying the unprecedented temperatures had highlighted issues with water security. NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw was quoted in the Guardian highlighting poor grass growth which could hit animal feed supplies for the winter.

Following the meeting of the National Drought Group on 26 July 2022, Minette spoke further about the need for a long-term water strategy. Listen back to her interviews on BBC News at One (7m 30s) and BBC 5 Live (19m 40s). Tom was also interviewed on the BBC News Channel, Channel 4 (2m 30s) and Times Radio (29m), as well as being quoted in The Times.

Sky News spoke to NFU Combinable Crops Board chair Matt Culley about the risk of crop fires and NFU national water specialist Kelly Hewson-Fisher was interviewed by BBC Farming Today (5m) discussing how farmers are currently using water. And Worcestershire county chairman Jake Freestone appeared in reports on the BBC News at Six (9m) and News at 10 (28m) about how the dry weather has been impacting his farm.

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