The first water abstraction licence restrictions have been issued by the Environment Agency, following a winter of low rainfall in parts of the country.
Between December to February, the North East and East of England only had 68 per cent of average rainfall and National River Flow Archive (NFRA) reports show below normal groundwater levels in central and eastern England, most notably in East Anglia.
North Yorkshire grower, Andrew Wilson who received a letter outlining upcoming restrictions to his licence last week, says it is the earliest notice he has ever received, causing concern for the season ahead.
He says: “It is not unusual that we get restrictions on that particular licence in a dry time, we received a notice because the river is close to the flow threshold where abstraction is stopped. My experience would suggest that in a week or so we will receive another letter to say we cannot abstract any water until there is significant rainfall.”
Mr Wilson, who is still planting potatoes, has not used the licence yet this year, but has concerns over how dry his sugar beet crop is looking.
He says: “Sugar beet is my biggest concern as this is the first year since losing neonicotinoid seed dressing. It is crucial that we get beet crops to 12 leaves as quickly as possible to have some defense against virus yellows, which can potentially decimate yield. It is very dry at the moment and we have got some quite strong, cold easterly winds. If a beet plant pokes its head above the surface it will certainly be knocked by night frosts and day winds. There are some that have poked through and are at cotyledon stage and some that have not germinated yet. If I put water on and we keep getting strong winds and frost it will get better emergence, but it is more plant for the frost and wind to attack. It is a catch 22 situation - if we do not irrigate we could have germinated plants without sufficient water to survive.”
The dry soils are also having an effect on spring cereals, says Mr Wilson.
“Spring barley has really been held back by the cold temperatures and parts of the field where it is a bit cloddier have not germinated yet because it is so short of moisture.”
However, the dry weather has eased disease pressure, which Mr Wilson says has allowed him to make savings on fungicides.
He says: “A positive consequence of the cold and dry is much reduced disease pressure in winter cereals, but there is not much uptake of nitrogen yet either. If there is rain on the horizon things could change quite quickly with a lot of rapid growth expected from nitrogen uptake, and septoria could rear its head.”
Last year’s crops, which did not receive water restrictions until mid-June, was variable in performance says Mr Wilson, who saw a 300 per cent difference in performance in potato crops, and over 100 per cent difference in sugar beet crops.
With no rain forecast in Mr Wilson’s area until the end of the month, he believes it is unlikely that the restriction will be lifted soon.
He says: “If sufficient rainfall comes and the flow of the river goes up the restriction will be lifted, but it is often the case that it is restricted again shortly after. Last year, within three days we got stopped again, before we even got the chance to use it. Challenging times, thankfully, we have other water sources in other areas that are more robust and less affected."
The dry weather has led to increased Soil Moisture Deficit across the country, and with increasing evaporation rates, NFRA says the effectiveness of rainfall and potential for recharge will be limited, suggesting below normal groundwater levels are likely to persist through the summer in the south-east.