England one dry spell away from return to severe drought, say experts

<span>Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

England is at risk of a severe drought, with experts warning it is one dry spell away from conditions similar to last summer.

Farmers are preparing for a difficult growing year, with some areas having never left drought and others just recovering. This means it will be difficult to grow certain vegetables and yields could be affected. Last year, yields on crops such as cabbage and kale were reduced because of the drought.

The National Drought Group has warned that England is one hot, dry spell away from severe drought conditions returning in 2023. Two areas – East Anglia and Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – are still in official “drought” status, with the remainder now “recovering”. East Anglia is where a large proportion of England’s crops, which require irrigation, are grown.

Related: Asda and Morrisons ration fresh produce including tomatoes and peppers

Supermarkets have rationed sales of produce, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and lettuce, owing to volatile growing conditions elsewhere in Europe, including drought. Soaring energy costs also mean glasshouses are going out of business.

Last year, hosepipe bans were put in place across England because of drought conditions and water companies considered taking more drastic measures such as banning the filling of public swimming pools, washing cars and cleaning non-domestic buildings.

February has been dry so far, with low rainfall across England since the end of January – meaning 63% of rivers are below normal levels for this time of year. Some storage reservoirs are still lower than anticipated and groundwater levels in Norfolk are only beginning to rise slowly.

Members of the National Drought Group, which includes water companies, the Met Office and government agencies, are planning for the worst case scenario of another hot, dry spell this summer and are managing water resources, including having emergency abstraction licences on standby for farmers who need to irrigate.

Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, highlighted the issue of drought hitting farmers at NFU’s annual conference in Birmingham.

Calling on ministers to take urgent action on food security, she said 2022 had been “the year that the potential impact of climate change really hit home.

“The extraordinary temperatures we experienced in July – exceeding 40 degrees – topped the previous record by almost a degree and a half. And while many parts of the country have experienced huge amounts of rainfall recently, impacting farming operations over autumn and winter, some counties remain in official drought status.”

Thérèse Coffey, speaking at the conference, praised farmers for dealing with pressures that included extreme weather and high fuel, feed and fertiliser costs. She highlighted the importance of protecting the environment alongside sustainable food production, adding: “Let me be clear: keeping the country fed is what farming is for. Our shared mission must be to reach net zero and strengthen the resilience of our environment so that, in turn, we strengthen the resilience of our businesses and our communities.”

The Environment Agency’s executive director and National Drought Group chair, John Leyland, said: “While most water levels have returned to normal across much of the country, low rainfall in recent weeks highlights the importance of remaining vigilant. We cannot rely on the weather alone, which is why the Environment Agency, water companies and our partners are taking action to ensure water resources are in the best possible position both for the summer and for future droughts.

“As ever, it is important that we all continue to use water carefully to protect not just our water resources but our precious environment and the wildlife that depends on it.”