Restrictions on water as drought fears mount

Water restrictions are being imposed on farmers amid mounting concerns over a lack of significant rain and low river flows.

Cumulative rainfall totals for April range from about 18% of the monthly long-term average in East Anglia to 68% in south-west England. River flows range from “below normal” to “exceptionally low” across much of eastern England, from Essex to Yorkshire.

See also: Drought measures increasingly likely, farmers warned

North Yorkshire potato grower Andrew Wilson said his first irrigation licence restriction arrived on Saturday 13 April.

River flows were very close to threshold, added Mr Wilson, who said he expected a “no abstraction” notice to follow within days.

So-called hands-off flow conditions – which stop or limit abstraction in streams and rivers when water flows are low – are already active in three North Yorkshire catchment areas: the Swale, Seven and Cod Beck at Thirsk.

Challenging year

In East Anglia, NFU national water specialist Paul Hammett said restrictions on groundwater abstraction were unlikely.

But he warned: “We are definitely not panicking, but it is an early irrigation season and we are bracing ourselves for another challenging year.”

Many reservoirs were full, but time was running out to fill the remainder, said Mr Hammett.

Some farmers might be allowed to fill reservoirs using river abstraction – but that in itself would require rain to ensure sufficient flow.

Melvyn Kay, of the UK Irrigation Association, said some areas had received above-average rainfall, but others had received much less.

“It’s worrying – some parts of the country have not had much rain at all so there will be limits on how much water people can abstract.”

Warmer outlook

There is little suggestion of any significant rain soon. Rising pressure and south-easterly winds, bringing warmer air from mainland Europe, are expected to push temperatures above 20C for Easter weekend – with the Met Office forecasting dry and sunny weather across the UK.

Met Office chief meteorologist Steve Willington said: “With temperatures usually around 10-13C at this time of year, it’s certainly going to be significantly warmer than average – and quite a contrast to the colder weather we have seen so far this month.”

The Met Office outlook until the end of June suggests a small increase in the likelihood of high pressure – usually associated with warmer-than-average temperatures.

There is also a suggestion that drier-than-average conditions are slightly more likely than wetter-than-average.

Farmers tweet dry land photos

Farmers have taken to social media to show how lack of rain is affecting their prospects.

High-value root crops are particularly affected, but so too are prospects for grassland and forage.

Suffolk farmer John Pawsey tweeted a photo of cracked earth in the second year of a two-year ley at Shimpling Park Farm, near Bury St Edmunds.

The cracks were the result of a dry 2018 and a dry beginning to 2019, he said.

“It would be great to see it at least look like it could feed some sheep,” said Mr Pawsey.

Potato and sugar beet growers are also facing challenges with some crops.

Norfolk potato grower Kit Papworth, who farms at North Walsham, posted a picture of an empty rain gauge – suggesting it was “redefining optimism” to expect any rain soon.

The Environment Agency has been working with farmers to increase abstraction flexibility where possible.

But given the dry end to March and into April, irrigation prospects are expected to remain only moderate for most of the country and moderate-to-poor in East Anglia.