Crisis talks held as drought fears deepen

Industry leaders are holding emergency talks as a lack of rain threatens to spell disaster for farmers.


DEFRA officials are meeting NFU representatives to discuss the situation on Monday (16 May).

Other participants in the talks include the Environment Agency, Natural England, Water UK and the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA). Together, they aim to draw up an action plan to help avert a crisis.

Parts of England have now gone for 10 weeks without any significant rainfall – with some areas reporting just 8mm in 60 days.

Damage to some cereal crops is now irreversible, the NFU has warned, with serious amounts of water needed to fill grains.

This is now the driest period in England and Wales since 1976.

UKIA executive secretary Melvyn Kay said some farmers might be reluctant to talk about problems for fear of affecting contracts and prices. But the situation was becoming serious, he warned.

“Irrigating farmers are well aware of the risks and expect dry spells and this is why they invest in irrigation. But if dry conditions continue then the situation is likely to change significantly. The main concern is among those who also grow cereals and potatoes.”

Talks are likely to focus on ways that water can be best used for food production while minimising the effect on consumers and the environment.

This spring saw the UK’s eleventh driest April, according to Met Office records, stretching back to 1910. The average rainfall total for the month was 36.7mm – equivalent to just 52% of the long-term average. The dry April followed a dry March, when less than half of the normal rainfall fell across the UK, also followed by a drier than average winter.

The situation is particularly bad for growers in eastern England, according to a UKIA assessment.

In Cambridgeshire, just 3mm of rain fell on farms in the Ely area during March, followed by 5mm in April.

Stunted cereal crops are now expected to yield little more than half their potential.

In Lincolnshire, trickle irrigation is paying dividends for growers who would otherwise require twice as much water using overhead irrigation.

In Norfolk, farmers who have seen just 4.5mm of rain since the end of February are irrigating cereal crops in a bid to mitigate losses. But using water on cereals so early is a gamble, because it means there will be less water available for potatoes and vegetables later.

Cereal crops not watered are now under severe stress and yellowing.

In Suffolk, wheat and barley is suffering on non-irrigated light land, with reports that any rain now may be too late for crops to recover. Farmers in the West Midlands are also reporting problems.

In Shropshire, growers are torn between irrigating cereal crops now and running the risk of having insufficient water reserves later. Significant areas of wheat are also being irrigated in Staffordshire.