We are working on behalf of farmers and growers to mitigate the challenges posed by the prolonged period of dry weather.
Find other relevant information at the bottom of this page, including:
East Anglia Drought Situation
With continued above average rainfall in March and into April 2023, the drought situation in East Anglia continues to improve for many areas.
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.
Watch again: East Anglia water situation meeting
Following meetings in December and March, the Environment Agency provided a further update to the water situation to NFU members in East Anglia on 28 April 2023. As some parts of East Anglia remain in drought status this communication is vital as we move through the irrigation season and into peak irrigation demand.
The NFU and the Environment Agency will provide a further update at the end of June.
Government announces CS/ES derogation for cutting/grazing
The government has announced measures enabling 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. The derogation came into effect on 17 August and will continue for most options until the end of 2022.
NFU Vice President David Exwood said: “The situation on the ground continues to be hugely challenging across all farming sectors. With nine areas of the country now officially in drought, many farmers and growers are facing serious impacts ranging from running out of irrigation water to using winter feed now to feed livestock. In short, increased costs across farming.
“The measures announced by the government provide some welcome options for Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship agreement holders. This important derogation, which the NFU has been calling for, will provide some relief to livestock farming businesses which are already using vital winter feed supplies at a time when on-farm costs are continuing to increase significantly.”
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 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.
Download and read our previous report: Learning lessons from the 2018 agricultural drought
You might be interested in: GOV.UK | Supporting Farmers during Drought
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.
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.
"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
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 the NDG (National Drought 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.
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. During these challenging times of prolonged dry weather the group has agreed to meet fortnightly. 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.
Download our latest Dry weather briefing.
Read the latest National Drought Group Update.
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
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 current drought, 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).
On 22 May 2023, the Environment Agency provided a Drought Briefing for East Anglia which provides the current position.
- NFU members can find log in and download the update here: East Anglia Drought Update – May 2023 Briefing
Guidance is also available from the EA at the GOV.UK website:
- You can find the latest position on flexible abstraction here: GOV.UK | Water abstraction during prolonged dry weather and drought
- More detailed hydrological information can be found in the EA’s weekly and monthly water situation reports: GOV.UK | Water situation reports for England
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
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
Dry weather and supply contracts
We understand that a number of members are concerned about being unable to deliver produce in line with their 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.
Download the Extreme weather and supply contracts briefing from our legal advisers
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.
- AHDB | Knowledge Library | Drought
- AHDB | Knowledge Library | Weather
- AHDB | Agri Market Outlook: Summer 2022
- AHDB | Water supply problems? A guide for livestock farms
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.
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.
In the media – how we're communicating the issues
August and July saw further dry weather, a heatwave and record-breaking temperatures, as well as several meetings of the National Drought Group, which have all captured the attention of national and international journalists and reporters. Many have been contacting the NFU to ask how our farmers and growers are being impacted.
With drought now officially declared in 10 areas of the country, our press team has made sure that farming voices are continuing to be heard across broadcast and print media.
We took an unprecedented number of calls about the impact of the weather on farming and set up dozens of interviews for the NFU officeholder team and members in all regions across England and in Wales.
NFU President Minette Batters appeared on Radio 4's Today programme (from 48:24), as well as Times Radio and BBC Radio 5 Live. NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw was interviewed by the BBC News Channel on numerous occasions, Channel 4 News, Times Radio. (from 1:05:55) and quoted on BBC Online. They both discussed the work farmers have been doing to keep livestock comfortable, highlighted the challenges facing the industry and the need for investment in water infrastructure.
We also arranged for NFU Vice President David Exwood to appear on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 Show (from 1:05:54) to explain the real issues farmers are facing currently. David was also on BBC Radio 5 Live's Saturday Breakfast Show.
Elsewhere, Livestock board vice chair David Barton was on the BBC News at 6 (from 22:34) while Student & Young Farmer Ambassador Bizza Walters appeared on Channel 4 News discussing how her sheep are already eating their winter fodder.
NFU Cymru Deputy President Abi Reader, a dairy farmer near Cardiff, was interviewed on BBC Wake up to Money (from 02:35) and BBC Radio 5 Live.
Suffolk county chair Andrew Blenkiron made plenty of appearances too. His latest interview was live on Sky News where he spoke about how his electricity bill has increased three-fold due to the cost of energy and the amount of extra water he's having to pump to irrigate the crops on the Euston estate near Thetford.
Other interviews include:
- NFU crops board chair Matt Culley on Sky News
- NFU national water specialist Kelly Hewson-Fisher on BBC Farming Today
- NFU member and Cambridgeshire arable farmer Tom Young on Sky News
- Vice President David Exwood quoted on BBC News online
- Tom Bradshaw in the Daily Mail and Guardian, Independent and The Times
- Member and Norfolk vegetable and arable farmer Andrew Francis on Sky News
- Andrew Francis was also quoted by the Independent
- Student & Young Farmer Ambassador Hannah Buisman quoted in Independent highlighting the tight profit margins
- Dairy board vice chair Paul Tompkins on the BBC News channel
- Student and Young Farmer Ambassador Karl Franklin on LBC News
- Tom Bradshaw quoted in New Statesman magazine
- NFU south west member Robin Milton interviewed by The Independent
Initially, Suffolk county chair Andrew Blenkiron, director of the Euston Estate near Thetford, spoke to the media about how his crops were being affected. Andrew was also interviewed by:
- 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.
Other interviews included:
- Minette was quoted in articles on BBC News online and in the Evening Standard
- Tom Bradshaw was quoted in the Guardian highlighting poor grass growth which could hit animal feed supplies for the winter.
- Tom was 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 Matt Culley about the risk of crop fires
- NFU national water specialist Kelly Hewson-Fisher was interviewed by BBC Farming Today (5m) discussing how farmers are currently using water.
- 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.