Anxious time for farmers forced to use winter stores in drought | Science & Tech News

David Exwood is happy with his crop of oats. Like other cereals, they’ve benefitted from rain in the earlier part of the year and then the heatwave ripened the crop and dried it out before harvesting.

But it’s still an anxious time. Not just because combining his crop on flinty soil brings the risk of sparks and fire.

He also rears beef and right now, with no green grass for them to eat, he’s having to feed them what he’s stored for winter.

Impacts like that can trickle down on food prices. And it’s not just livestock. Other crops, like potatoes, carrots, onions and sugar beet are thirsty and sensitive to drought.

Yields of these are forecast to be 10 to 50% lower than in a typical year.

David Exwood
David Exwood says there is enough water in the UK to avoid a crisis

It’s not yet clear if this year’s harvest will translate into higher food prices – that largely depends on how wet the winter is. But it’s a major worry with high inflation and a looming cost of living crisis.

Mr Exwood, who is also vice-president of the National Farmers Union, argues the challenge of water scarcity is not a new one.

But successive governments have failed to bring in measures to encourage farmers to store more water on farms and coordinate response better between his sector, water companies and the Environment Agency.

“We have enough water in this country,” says Mr Exwood. “We just need investment in the infrastructure to have it in the right place and the right time.”

One tension that emerges every time there is drought are the restrictions placed on farmers by the Environment Agency to protect river and wetland habitats during drought.

You can see their frustration some rivers, especially chalk streams fed by aquifers, still have plenty of water in them.

However, these are some of the most sensitive to damage from low water levels, which concentrates pollution and leads to rises in temperature, both of which can be fatal to aquatic life.

Conservationists say earlier action to reduce everyone’s consumption when the weather is dry would be an easy first step. But the only long-term solution, they say, is to restore more wetland habitats, whether that’s peat bogs, marshes and reedbeds or floodplains.

“Around 90% of those have disappeared in the last 100 years,” says Ali Morse, water policy manager for the Wildlife Trusts.

“We need to make space for that water, we’re going to see increasing conditions like this and we’re going to see crops failing if we don’t take this kind of action.”

The message isn’t a new one – but never seems to trickle down to action on farms, or the surrounding countryside. Restoring wetland to reduce flooding and improve drought resilience is already part of the government’s landmark Environment Act.

But it’s already been criticised for being thin on detail and lacking clear policy targets for seeing changes through.

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