Farmers will be allowed to take up more groundwater to irrigate parched crops during the ongoing heatwave, after a “drought summit” between farming leaders and the environment secretary, Michael Gove.
Farmers have suffered in the heat, with crops wilting or failing to reach their full size, and livestock running short of grass and fodder. Prices on some foods are already increasing, and price rises may be necessary for some staple goods later in the year, with the next few months crucial for the harvest.
“We made the point [to Gove] that you should not take food production for granted,” said Guy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, which called the summit. “This is a very serious test of the government, of whether it takes UK food production seriously. These times are serious, and [Gove] said he would work on the issues we raised and get back to us.”
Other measures under consideration include government help with moving vital fodder and straw around the country from areas where it is still abundant to those in short supply. Smith said Ireland was already operating such a scheme, and called for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to set one up in England and Wales.
He said allowing farmers more latitude in recharging their irrigation systems from ground and river water was essential. “Farmers growing potatoes like me will have their reservoirs empty because of the drought in the last two months, and if I now have the ability to take from groundwater I will be able to bring my crops to fruition,” he told the Guardian. “That is good for farmers and for consumers.”
The environment secretary, Michael Gove, said: “Our priority is ensuring that we support high-quality food production in this country. I know that farmers are already working together to make use of available fodder and very much want to see this continue. We are already regulating more flexibly to ease some of the immediate pressures for farmers.”
Nick Rau, Friends of the Earth farming campaigner, said: “Food production is clearly essential, but so are our wildlife-rich rivers. These mustn’t be sucked dry to help prop up unsustainable farming methods. Sustainable farming systems that work with nature are more resilient to extreme weather conditions. Measures such as building up soil carbon will improve soil resilience and help fight climate change. And the government must do far more to boost water-efficiency and force water firms to fix their pipes. It’s a scandal that millions of litres of water are lost every day through leaks.”
The Environment Agency (EA), which regulates abstraction rights for ground and river water, said it would allow “flexibility”, which would let farmers trade water allowances with each other and help farmers reaching the limits of their water licences. River waters will also be monitored so that after spells of heavy rain, such as those seen over the weekend in some areas, greater access to excess water will be granted.
The agency said it would “act quickly and arrangements will be agreed where the EA is satisfied there will not be any adverse effects on the environment or the rights of other lawful water users”, and allow emergency abstraction in cases where a threat to crops or the welfare of livestock was imminent.
Paul Hickey, deputy director of water resources at the agency, said: “We know farmers are facing considerable pressures and we want to support them to safeguard food production and animal welfare. We must also balance farmers’ needs with those of wildlife and other water users, so we will only allow these arrangements where we are satisfied there won’t be any adverse effects on the environment.”
The flexible arrangement for farmers will not apply to water companies, which operate under different rules.
Tim Breitmeyer, president of the CLA, which represents landowners and rural businesses, also called on government to adapt to the UK’s changing climate. “It is vital to relax the rules and allow farmers and land managers flexibility to abstract water without penalties,” he said. “One solution to ease this drought situation which could potentially increase year-on-year due to climate change is to focus on long-term water management. We need investment now to secure future water supplies so that the impact of such extreme weather does not have a detrimental effect on food production and the environment over the next 50 years and more.”
Despite the thunderstorms and heavy rains in many areas over the weekend, hot and dry conditions are set to persist. Smith warned that the countryside was still a “tinderbox”, with wildfires breaking out in some areas, and called on the public to be vigilant and respect the weather conditions. “We want to see people take extra care, and show a responsible attitude,” he said. “For example, don’t use portable barbecues except in proper areas, and sky lanterns should be banned.”
The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution farmers’ charity, which also attended the summit, has warned that many rural families will face hardship this year, as farmers who were already hard-pressed were sent reeling by the double whammy of a cold wet spring followed by two months of drought and high temperatures, with no end yet in sight.
The long winter and cold spring delayed crop planting and depleted feed stores for livestock, meaning many farmers had to dip into feed supplies they were saving for this winter. Without that buffer, and with a grass shortage caused by the drought, many livestock farmers will face hardship or higher prices later in the year.
The government also heard calls at the drought summit for a speeding up of payments owed under the various agricultural subsidy schemes. Defra did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said farmers who rent their land face particular financial difficulties. He said: “Tenant farmers heading towards autumn rent reviews will be wanting to hold the line against any rent increases landlords may wish to gain. Some of the very high rents being paid on farm business tenancies could do with some serious downward adjustment.”