Environment Agency looks to suspend river abstraction licences as drought risk rises

Growers who abstract water from rivers could see their crops struggle if the Environment Agency takes away licences as the dry weather continues.

This was the warning given to the fresh produce industry by agriculture minister Jim Paice at last week's Re:Fresh conference in London.

Speaking a few days after a Defra "drought summit" agreed that the agency would review the country's water supplies, he said: "Groundwater boreholes and reservoir levels are fine - it's people who abstract from rivers who face the main problem.

"The agency has said it will impose restrictions soon and Defra is to have another meeting on abstraction."

But he added: "Farmers being the first to have their licences cut is not part of the solution. We have to ensure our industry can continue to grow the quality and quantity of food we need."

The agency in Kent has already asked 72 licence holders to stop extracting because water levels are lower than they should be. Of those, 55 are agricultural licensees.

Fortunately, many growers use boreholes, reservoirs and mains water - and as Grower went to press they were continuing to irrigate.

Kent-based Marion Regan of Hugh Lowe Farms, one of the UK's largest soft growers, said: "We use reservoirs as our irrigation source plus mains water. We are keeping an eye on that."

Potato Council market information expert Jim Dav ies said: "Potato growers are using irrigation, where they have it, because conditions have been dry. But there's no major cause for concern at the moment."

English Apples & Pears chief executive director Adrian Barlow said: "It is having an effect on top fruit growers. There's a lot of irrigating going on and some trees are in distress. If the dry weather continues we will see fruit falling off the trees."

He added that top fruit growers in some areas of the UK also experienced frost damage at the start of May.

"It is hard to say to what extent. But it looks to have occurred mainly in low-lying orchards and pears seem to have been affected more than apples," said Barlow.

However, he added that despite the frost and the dry weather the good start to the year, which saw a good fruit set, meant that the top fruit industry can "still expect to have a good crop".

GROWERS KEEP AN EYE ON WATER LEVELS AS THEY HOPE FOR RAIN

- "We are busy irrigating and the crops, which we do not start harvesting until the end of June, look OK. But they could do with a natural drink. All of the crop across the board would benefit from a bit more rain." James Brown, Pollybell Organic

- "Water is getting scarce - the water levels in the reservoirs we use for irrigation are getting low. So we are having to think: 'What do we water and what don't we?' We are very worried and struggling to keep some crops alive." Gavin Prentice, field manager, OW Wortley & Sons

- "Most if not all salad growers are keeping up with their irrigation. The issue for us is the labour cost - this year's costs are so far double what we budgeted. We also have a problem with weeds, which are cropping up as soon as we start watering the crop." John Allen, chairman, British Leafy Salads Association, and salad grower

"It's dry but at this stage we are still able to water our crops. There is plenty of time for rain to come." Julian Willis, commerical manager, Fenmarc Produce


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