Despite this month’s high rainfall, the weather in June 2018 was far more indicative of the long-term trend, experts say.
NFU president Minette Batters called it a ‘wake-up call’ for UK agriculture. The heatwave and drought of the summer of 2018, the joint hottest on record according to the Met Office, saw a tumbling of yields for many arable and horticultural producers in England.
Analysis released by the Priestley International Centre for Climate earlier this year said the UK could expect longer lasting and more intense heatwaves.
The 2018 summer heatwave was made about 30 times more likely than it would be naturally by climate change, according to the Met Office, with one of the driest June months in England and Wales since 1910.
While there has been rainfall this spring, it has not been enough to replenish water supplies and soils.
The past winter saw below average rainfall for almost the entire country (compared to a 1981-2010 average), giving soils and water storage facilities little ability to replenish.
Fred Walter, who runs a 1,000-hectare mixed family farm near Retford, Nottinghamshire, says: “The bit of rain we have had will not make a difference. We need much more rain to lift the aquifer.”
Mr Walter has made major changes to his business over the past decade, in part influenced by water management. This has included switching from potatoes and increasing his acreage of maize, which he says can survive on less rainfall, and is used to feed an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant.
Water availability and management are particularly acute in the south-east, where there is less water per capita available than in parts of the Mediterranean.
Across England, average summer rainfall could reduce by up to 30 per cent below average (of 1981-2000) in the next 20 years, and in the next 40 years by up to 50 per cent, according to the Met Office, with the largest decreases in the South.
By the 2050s, the area of land which is currently well-suited to potatoes would decline by 74% under climate projections.
However, getting approval for irrigation will be limited, with 43% of growers on catchments defined as being over-licensed or over-abstracted.
In response, the Environment Agency has urged farmers to consider building on-site storage reservoirs to reduce the need for water abstraction.
Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, says: “Water management is now a key part of every farm strategy. If you do not have access to water, it is a real problem.”
The impact of climate change is not just the intensity and frequency of droughts. Over the past 40 years, the intensity of winter rainfall in England has also increased, with more frequent spells of exceptionally wet weather.
For the UK, climate researchers say there is a one-in-three chance of record-breaking rainfall hitting parts of England each winter (October-March), increasing risk of major flooding on farmland.
For farm businesses, drought reduces yields, while waterlogged land prevents access, reduces yields, increases disease risk for plants and soil erosion.
This puts a greater onus on not just water storage, but improved irrigation application and greater monitoring of soil moisture.
Having water access today is not necessarily a safeguard for the future, warns NFU water resource specialist Paul Hammett.
He says: “The use of water in agriculture is a swiftly changing agenda and, for farmers who sit back safe in the knowledge they have an abstraction licence and therefore everything is all well in the world, that might not always be the case.
“We are seeing the start of regulatory change from Government about how the way it might want to regulate and access water could change in the future, driven by climate change and population growth.
“Farmers are faced with increased risks against continuation of supply. “Even if water is there, will they be able to take it in the future?”
For Mr Walter, additional irrigation during last summer’s drought was not worth the added cost in terms of the resulting yield benefit.
He says: “The question we have to ask is how much of that water [if you irrigated last summer] actually got into the ground and did some good rather than being evaporated?
“Everyone talks about how important irrigation is for crops, but the costs are not always being carried through by the crops. The risks for us with potatoes were too high because of water, so we needed to do something to reduce that risk to the farm business.
“There is the option to spend £100,000 on water storage, but I did not see where I could make a return on the additional water costs. That is a decision everyone has to make for themselves when it comes to water management on their own farm.”
David Hanson, an agricultural specialist at NatWest, who works with Mr Walter as his relationship manager, says: “Mr Walter has made a decision that he felt was best for his own farm business. He was not tempted to try to continue on a path he felt was unsustainable.
“Instead, he has tried to think differently with the AD plant and switching crops about how to ensure the long-term profitability of his farm.”
Away from the farm, the UK’s future agricultural policy after it has left the European Union could also include new water management measures.
NatWest director of agriculture Roddy McLean says: “It is likely flood alleviation measures could well be part of the new Environmental Land Management scheme the UK Government introduces in the coming years.
“This opens up opportunities for farm owners to adapt their business and benefit.”