Irrigation restrictions could be imposed on farms across south-east England as the region grapples with its worst water shortage since the drought of 1976.

Kent and Sussex are among the counties worst-hit in the region which has had only 74% of average rainfall since November 2004.

Groundwater levels and river flows are low, and in some places are the lowest on record.

The Environment Agency has warned that farmers across a swathe of land stretching from Hants to Essex and south Cambs are likely to suffer from unreliable groundwater and surface water supplies this summer.

Farmers faced irrigation restrictions unless the region received at least 80% of its average rainfall in the run-up to April, said an agency spokesman.

“We are talking to farmers and discussing ways they can phase out their water use.”

Maintaining water supplies to livestock farmers is being seen as a priority if animal welfare problems are to be averted.

But it will be more difficult to argue the case for allowing irrigation if households are deprived of running water.

Last week full drought restrictions came a step nearer as three water companies sought permission from DEFRA to introduce wide-ranging water-saving measures, including bans on washing cars, filling private swimming pools and using hose pipes.

A spokesman for Southern Water said it was up to the Environment Agency to impose restrictions on agriculture:

“Many farmers abstract their water directly from the ground and we do not have any control over their supply.”

Nick Herbert, Tory MP for Arundel and the South Downs, warned that further restrictions would have a direct impact on supplies of food and on farmers’ profitability, which was already being challenged.

“The drought is already causing concern as the key growing season looms,” Mr Herbert told MPs in the House of Commons during a parliamentary debate on the crisis last Thursday (16 March).

But NFU regional environment and land use adviser John Archer urged farmers not to panic.

“At the very worst, we believe we will be looking at restrictions during certain times of the day, rather than an out-and-out ban,” he said.

fwnews@rbi.co.uk