Water being abstracted© Tim Scrivener

A farmer has lost his appeal against the Environment Agency’s (EA) refusal to renew two abstraction licences on the Norfolk Broads to irrigate salad and potato crops on his land.

Norfolk farmer Andrew Alston, of White House Farm, Marsham, has abstracted water to irrigate and grow crops near Catfield since 1986.

Mr Alston applied to abstract up to 68,000cu m of water a year from a borehole close to Catfield Fen and up to 22,700cu m from a second borehole located between Catfield and Sutton Fen. The figures represented maximum volumes of water that could be needed for abstraction in occasional severe drought years.

See also: All you need to know about water abstraction licensing reform

But conservationists appealed and claimed water abstraction from the two sites on the Norfolk Broads was damaging the environment and threatening rare wildlife, including fen orchid populations.

Under the current precautionary principle, farmers have to prove they are not causing harm, rather than harm be evidenced. Proving a negative is always extremely difficult to do NFU national water resources specialist Paul Hammett

The RSPB and Butterfly Conservation said there was a perceived problem with a change in the water, which has recorded a change in pH of 0.1 pH, making it slightly more acidic.

The RSPB claimed the abstraction of groundwater was reducing the amount of alkaline water reaching Catfield and encouraging Sphagnum moss to establish, which was threatening rare fenland plants, including orchids.

Fen orchid spikes

However, Mr Alston said following a change in management by local landowners, fen orchid spikes had actually increased five-fold from 962 in 2013 to about 4,500 in 2015. How the site had been managed over the years and not water abstraction was the real cause of damage to orchids, he added.

The link between abstraction and the drop in pH of the water in Catfield Fen has not been established. However, the Environment Agency refused to renew Mr Alston’s licences to abstract water from both sites on the grounds that it could not rule out the risk that continued abstraction would harm the chemistry at Catfield Fen and damage vegetation.

Mr Alston appealed the decision, arguing that it was not clear beyond reasonable doubt that continued abstraction would adversely affect the areas.

But an inspector appointed by the environment secretary dismissed the appeal at Catfield, Norfolk, following a public inquiry. During the consultation, Natural England advised the Environment Agency that based on the available evidence, water abstraction was likely to be contributing to the deterioration of Catfield Fen.

In the report, the inspector said there was “evidence from the EA’s model for increasing acidity as a result of abstraction”.

NFU ‘disappointed’

Responding to the decision, the NFU said it was “disappointing” for local farmers and for irrigated crop production in the immediate vicinity around Catfield Fen.

NFU national water resources specialist Paul Hammett said: “Much of the debate at the inquiry centred on the Habitats Directive. Our members have significant concerns about the adverse impact the directive can have on farming and food production activities in the vicinity of a protected site.

“Under the current precautionary principle, farmers have to prove they are not causing harm, rather than harm be evidenced. Proving a negative is always extremely difficult to do.

“However, this case was never about changing the Habitats Directive, the principles of which are well established in EU law, but about how its rules are applied at one specific location.”

Mr Hammett stressed that many of the issues raised during the public inquiry were site-specific. Therefore, the wider implications of this decision were “likely to be extremely limited”.