Mass crop failures expected in England as farmers demand hosepipe bans | Drought

Experts have warned of widespread crop failures across England, as charities and farmers criticised water companies for dithering over hosepipe bans despite drought being declared across much of the country.

On Friday, the Environment Agency classified eight of the 14 areas of England as being in a drought. Despite this, water companies, including Anglian Water, Southern Water and South West Water have not brought in hosepipe bans. Thames Water said it does not plan to expedite a hosepipe ban expected next week.

Leaked documents seen by the Guardian from a meeting of the National Drought Group show concerning figures about the state of farming in England.

hosepipe ban graphic

Half of the potato crop is expected to fail as it cannot be irrigated, and even crops that are usually drought-tolerant, such as maize, have been failing.

The group was told “irrigation options are diminishing with reservoirs being emptied fast”, and losses of 10-50% are expected for crops including carrots, onions, sugar beet, apples and hops. Milk production is also down nationally because of a lack of food for cows, and wildfires are putting large areas of farmland at risk.

Farmers are deciding whether to drill crops for next year, and there are concerns that many will decide not to, with dire consequences for the 2023 harvest. Cattle and other livestock are expected to be slaughtered early at lower weights because it is likely farmers will run out of feed for them in winter.

One of the driest areas is East Anglia, which is also home to much of England’s farming, including more than two-thirds of its sugar beet crop and a third of its potato crop.

However, Anglian Water has ruled out a hosepipe ban for this summer, arguing that it has good levels of water in reservoirs.

A spokesperson said: “Today’s declaration of drought across the region we supply serves to underline the seriousness of the situation. But because of the investments we’ve made and the support of our customers, we still do not envisage needing a hosepipe ban in our region this summer.”

But farmers disagree. Tom Bradshaw, the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said: “We have members who can’t abstract irrigation water but still in East Anglia there is no hosepipe ban. We can’t believe that we aren’t allowed to irrigate to grow the fruit and vegetables the country needs but there is no ban on excessive consumer use.”

He suggested the government should be intervening to make sure that water companies did their part to mitigate the drought. “Defra ministers need to prioritise food production. Feeding people is critically important.

“The minister Steve Double was on the call today and we made it clear to him that we need to plan on there being a dry winter and we need to fill our reservoirs, or next year’s food production could be in the balance. Irrigated vegetables are something a lot of people will be eating; if we don’t have irrigation there will be very low availability [of vegetables].”

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Stuart Singleton-White, from the Angling Trust, agreed, saying that chalk streams in East Anglia were facing perhaps irreversible damage due to the dry conditions.

He said: “It’s still not being taken seriously. Take East Anglia: pretty much every chalk stream except the Stiffkey is at exceptionally low levels. They have had next to no rainfall and have some of the most agriculture in the country, so need more water for irrigation. Yet for some reason Anglian Water has not put a hosepipe ban in place. And the drought being announced won’t change that. We are in the position where areas classified as in drought are not putting hosepipe bans in place.”

He has called for a hosepipe ban across the whole drought region: “There are still a number of water companies in the drought area who claim they have enough water and they don’t need to bring in hosepipe bans but that is just going to confuse customers.

“A hosepipe ban across the whole drought region would start to send the right messages about us all playing our part to conserve water.”

The areas under drought measures are Devon and Cornwall, Solent and South Downs, Kent and south London, Herts and north London, East Anglia, Thames, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, and the east Midlands. The Environment Agency expects a further two areas – Yorkshire and West Midlands – will move into drought later in August.

There was, however, one piece of uplifting news in the meeting: the National Trust told those assembled that while they have had low river flows, ponds drying up and wildfires, there are parts of their land which are “thriving”, with plenty of water – those where they have introduced beavers to create dams and store water.

A Southern Water spokesperson said: “We have restrictions in place in Hampshire and Isle of Wight, and nowhere else because resources do not demand it.”

The other water companies have been contacted for comment.

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