Drought may last beyond Christmas, Environment Agency warns

The Midlands and the South West have now been added to the areas officially in drought in England, the Environment Agency has said.

Seventeen counties in south-west England and the Midlands have been declared official drought zones as the agency warned that the water shortages could last until Christmas and into 2013.

This means more than half the country is now officially in drought, according to the Environment Agency.

The new official drought zones are Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Bristol, South Gloucestershire, parts of Hampshire, and most of Wiltshire.

The agency had already declared drought zones in the South East, London, East Anglia and parts of Yorkshire. Hosepipe bans introduced by seven water companies in the south and east and affecting about 20 million customers remain in place.

Recent rain and snow has helped farmers, but groundwater, reservoirs and aquifers remain at extremely low levels.

Drought management

DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman has set up a drought management group, which is working with farmers to try to mitigate the effects of the drought by introducing measures such as water sharing between businesses and conservation.

Ms Spelman said: “As more areas of the UK move into drought, it is vital that we use less water to protect the public’s water supply in the driest areas of the country. It is for everyone to share the responsibility to save water.”

If the drought continues this summer, crop yields could suffer as pressure on water resources intensifies and demand for water for irrigated crops, such as potatoes, increases.

Andrew Blenkiron, estate director of the Euston Farms (4,450ha) on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, has planted 20% potatoes this year. His irrigated crop area has been reduced from 1,000 acres (404ha) to 800 acres (324ha).

Mr Blenkiron has agreed to a voluntary 20% reduction in groundwater borehole abstraction – and the farm’s reservoirs are around 70% full.

Groundwater levels low

“Groundwater levels are extremely low and this a significant factor for us,” said Mr Blenkiron.

“However, we are thankful the Environment Agency relaxed its winter abstraction period beyond 31 March until the end of April.

“If we can keep pumping water at this low level, we will have just about enough water to irrigate this lower crop area.”

Mr Blenkiron said 42mm of rainfall in March and 40mm so far in April has really helped the crops in the ground.

“The winter cereals and the oilseed rape look well. The spring-sown crops are emerging well because there is enough moisture now,” he explained.

“But the concern is that the groundwater levels are low and as you get down in the soil profile, there is less water available.

“Assuming that we get average or above-average rainfall over the summer, we should be OK.”

Rain needed

Dairy farmer Mark Philp, of D Philp, Trenake Farm, a mixed farm in Looe, Cornwall, said winter cereals were looking good on his farm, but reservoirs were running noticeably low in his region.

He said: “At the moment we’re not really being affected by the drought, but we would like a bit more rain to bulk up the grass that we want to cut soon.

“However, we will be affected if we don’t have enough rain from now onwards.”

The Country and Land Association warned that the recent rainfall must not lull farmers into a false sense of security.

CLA Midlands rural adviser Donna Tavernor said: “The Midlands is very much in drought, which is why these measures, however unpopular, need to be taken.

“Recent rain may have made grass and crops look green again but it has not helped to grow grain. Wheat and barley, potatoes, salad and vegetable crops will all be affected.

“If this continues we could have drastically reduced food production. Maintaining supplies to livestock is crucial.”

In contrast, Yorkshire-based AICC agronomist Patrick Stephenson said three inches (76mm) of rainfall had so far fallen in his region this April.

“Currently, we don’t have a problem with drought,” he said.

“Anywhere from north of the Humber we are fine, and once you get up to Berwick, you could argue that there might be an issue with excess amounts of water.”

For more on the drought, see our dedicated web page

Online grain trading made easy with Farmers Weekly Graindex

It takes just a couple of minutes to create a listing on Farmers Weekly Graindex and you’ll get a range of prices to compare from active buyers who want your grain.
Visit Farmers Weekly Graindex
See more