Water supplies worry for farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk

Paul Wortley, Wissey Abstractor Group chairman. ANL-150514-103057001
Paul Wortley, Wissey Abstractor Group chairman. ANL-150514-103057001

Farmers growing irrigated crops in Norfolk and Suffolk are taking positive steps to protect their businesses from future droughts – but worry that water will be unavailable for food production in the longer term.

These are the main findings of a survey of irrigated crop growers in the River Lark and Wissey catchments, carried out by the NFU.

The survey highlighted the impact drought can have, with about half the abstractors surveyed experiencing water shortages during the 2010 to 2012 dry period and about a third of these seeing business profitability fall as a result.

Farmers are responding by investing in new irrigation equipment, improving water efficiency, changing the crops they grow or investing in more reservoir capacity.

But only one in ten is trading water into the business, a key element of Defra’s proposals for abstraction reform.

NFU national water resources specialist Paul Hammett said: “After one of the driest Aprils in the East since records began this survey is a timely reminder of the pressure our farmers face in securing water to grow our food.

“It highlights the lack of long-term confidence they have that water will be available for irrigated crops. Alongside greater drought risk, the government’s proposal for water abstraction licensing reform is believed to be one of the major contributors to this declining confidence.

“It’s vital that the new government comes forward with sensible plans that will give farmers the confidence they need to invest in their businesses and meet growing public demand for British food.”

Wissey Abstractor Group chairman Paul Wortley, of Methwold, welcomed the survey findings, saying it demonstrated the importance of water for food production.

“As businesses our aim is to look ahead, both short and long-term, towards making our supply of water as secure as possible,” he said.

“Having a secure water supply, and using it efficiently, is vital for farming’s productivity and profitability.”

The survey showed that 74 per cent of respondents across both the Wissey and Lark catchments are quite or very confident about water security for the year ahead.

But for five years’ time, the proportion of farmers that are quite or very confident drops to 36 per cent and this figure falls to 26 per cent for 10 years’ time.

The survey revealed that 46 per cent of respondents in the Wissey and 62 per cent of respondents in the Lark experienced some form of water shortage during the dry period between 2010 and 2012.

Farmers took action to manage water shortages during this period in a number of ways, including irrigating at night, applying voluntary restrictions on irrigation, increasing reservoir usage and prioritising the crops that received water.

Lark Abstractors chairman Lindsay Hargreaves said: “This survey illustrates the level of concern there is among abstractors about the availability of water for food production. It also shows farmers are not just sitting back – they are responding to this concern.

“But this challenge can’t just be met at the individual farm level. We need politicians and regulators to recognise the strategic importance of food production and to work with us to encourage collaboration and new solutions to the long-term problems we face.”

The total area farmed by respondents across both the Lark and Wissey catchments was 73,113 acres and the area irrigated was 41,315 acres.