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Farmers face ‘difficult choices’ over water use during August heatwave

PUBLISHED: 10:00 13 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:02 13 August 2020

The dry August heatwave has created water worries for East Anglian farmers growing irrigated fruit and vegetable crops, says the National Farmers' Union. Picture: Phil Morley

The dry August heatwave has created water worries for East Anglian farmers growing irrigated fruit and vegetable crops, says the National Farmers' Union. Picture: Phil Morley

Fruit and vegetable growers across East Anglia are feeling the heat during a sweltering August which has left soils parched and river flows dropping.

Paul Hammett, water expert from the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Picture: Sarah Lucy BrownPaul Hammett, water expert from the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said low rainfall levels in the last two weeks combined with exceptionally high temperatures are proving to be a challenge towards the end of the irrigation season.

At a meeting with the Environment Agency, he said farmers were told that current weather conditions have caused soil moisture to drop to “notably low levels” across the region, signalling an early warning that significant winter rainfall will be needed to recharge the region’s groundwater supplies.

Growers representing key catchments reported that peak irrigation demand has now passed for most potato crops, but water is still needed for crops such as onions and will need to be applied to many fields to assist with the harvesting of root vegetables, he said.

“Some farm reservoirs are now empty and the NFU has asked the Environment Agency to approve wherever possible applications from farmers to take advantage of any ‘storm water’ that might flow past farms in the coming weeks,” said Mr Hammett.

READ MORE: Farmers race to harvest peas wilting in the heatwave

“The Environment Agency hopes to be supportive in dealing with requests for the early filling of reservoirs, but much depends in part on the characteristics of each river – for some rivers the 48-hour period after a storm places them at ‘peak stress’ because of the risk of fish kills, so each request must be considered on local characteristics.”

For non-irrigated crops, harvest yields for cereals were reported as “poor and patchy”, while grass and fodder growth for winter livestock feed has suffered badly and the NFU has reactivated its Fodder Bank to match up farmers in need with those who have fodder available.

READ MORE: Chips maker pledges £25m to help potato growers deal with Covid-19 and climate change

Following above-average rainfall in June and July, weather conditions have turned dramatically in the past two weeks with no rainfall at all in some river catchments.

Mr Hammett said: “In general, flows in Norfolk rivers are holding up, but flows in some Essex and Suffolk rivers are approaching trigger levels where statutory irrigation restrictions could be imposed.

“Groundwater levels across the region range from ‘normal’ to ‘below normal’ and no restrictions are anticipated. However, the attention of groundwater irrigators is already turning to the 2021 farming year with early indications of heightened drought risk next year if we do not receive above average rainfall throughout the coming winter.

“Some farmers are already making difficult choices about whether to use any remaining available water to keep alive sugar beet crops (which are not usually irrigated) or to keep water in reserve for next year.”


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