UK agriculture 'could wither up and die' if water mismanagement continues

| 16th June 2011
maize stubble in a harvested field
As a major drought looms across parts of the UK, William Chase - of Tyrrells Crisps and the Chase Distillery - charges the government and water industry with short-sightedness and failing to manage supplies

It seems ludicrous to be writing an article about a drought in the UK, when it is literally coming down in buckets outside! It only goes to show that drought is not necessarily a result of a lack of rain, but rather a lack of long-term planning for the rationing and conservation of our water resources.

Periodically farmers such as myself have to face the stress and potential financial loss incurred by drought. Currently it is East Anglia and the south which is labouring under official drought status, with other areas under threat. The trouble is blamed on the driest spring since records began in 1910, bringing a drop in river water and groundwater levels, as well as a decrease in reservoir stocks.

Once again – as happens each time these droughts occur – there is a lot of talking going on about short-term solutions. Farmers are being asked politely by the Environment Agency to voluntarily restrict their water use, under threat of formal restrictions on spray irrigation in the near future. Hose-pipe bans are being touted around and all sorts of advisory pamphlets and messages are being conveyed by water companies asking people to 'save water'.

It’s all too little, too late. For years we’ve been aware that long periods of dry weather are likely to become more common because of climate change. For years, after each dry spell, much lip service is paid to being better prepared. We have debates about solutions such as a water grid to keep the flow going across the countryside from where water is plentiful to where it is needed. Then along comes a good wet winter, and a soggy spring, and it is all forgotten again until the next crisis.

It is the reservoir stocks that, in my opinion, are the greatest cause for concern, and to a large degree a preventable problem. In times of plenty we need to catch as much life-giving rainwater as we can to tide us over the dry times. Currently the latest Environment Agency water situation report tells us that nearly three-quarters of indicator reservoirs are at lower than normal levels for the time of year, and some rate as 'exceptionally low'.

Due to short-sightedness on the part of the Government and water companies, we are not conserving our water supplies. We need more reservoirs, and we need to make sure the ones we have are not leaking away our precious water. There is a severe lack of maintenance and sensible management in our water system. The farmers all do their bit to the best of their ability with their own water management strategies on their own land, and getting together were possible to form united abstraction co-operatives, but we need the authorities to step up to the plate and support us with action for the long term, rather than words and promises.

The impact of possible longer and more severe spells of drought in Britain is that our national agricultural industry could wither up and die along with the fields. Farmers are already hard hit with the high price of fuel – not to mention other capital costs – and although it may appear that food prices are constantly rising, the 'farm gate' price for the farmer is not keeping up with inflation. If we add the financial burden of drought, in the form of irrigation costs, the cost of buying in animal feed, and the losses incurred by crop failure, to the litany of our farmers’ laments, the future looks bleak indeed.

I believe in producing the best of British, and ensuring the quality of British products (in my case liquor distilled mainly from potatoes and cider apples grown on my farm) is renowned throughout the world. Although my farm is not directly affected (yet!) by this year’s drought, I am nevertheless having to deal with the effects of the exceptionally dry spring, and am having to irrigate the orchards and potatoes more lavishly than usual. I have livestock too, for which I grow cereal – it’s all having to be carefully managed, and because I and my team have had foresight, we are coping well and will hopefully have a creditable harvest as a result.

It’s time for everyone to stop taking water for granted and face up to the fact that climate change is a reality, and we need some long-term planning and sooner rather than later.

William Chase is a leading UK agricultural entrepreneur. He has founded several businesses based on his Herefordshire potato farm, including Tyrrells Crisps, which he built into a £40million company before selling a majority share in order to open Chase Distillery in 2009. The Chase Distillery uses traditional methods and the potatoes and apples from its own farm to produce premium spirits and fruit liqueurs. 


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