Farmers fear the worst after driest spring since records began

Crop yields could be cut by half as parts of Britain are declared drought zones – and hosepipe bans loom for millions

Parts of England were officially declared drought zones yesterday after the driest spring since records began prompted farmers to warn that crop yields could be up to 50 per cent down in the worst-hit regions.

Millions of householders were told they face hosepipe bans as ministers held crisis talks with growers and water-thirsty industries over how to tackle the worsening problem. Despite the prospect of sustained rainfall over the weekend reaching even the most severely affected region of East Anglia, experts warned of depleted river levels and tinderbox conditions leading to a summer of forest and heathland fires.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman urged the public to conserve stocks by showering rather than taking a bath. "Households know how to use less water and everyone can do their bit to use water more wisely, not only through the summer, but throughout the year," she said.

After weeks of bone-dry weather in which eastern England reported less than 20 per cent of its May average, the Environment Agency confirmed that Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and western Norfolk were now officially experiencing drought. One hundred farmers were ordered to stop crop irrigation while a further 200 in Suffolk were told they face the same restrictions later this month. A ban to protect an area of special scientific interest is already in place in Kent, where just 4mm of rain fell last month.

Severn Trent Water put eight million households in the Midlands on notice that it may be forced to act to preserve water levels. But Anglian Water and Cambridge Water, which serve the areas worst hit, insisted they had sufficient reservoir stocks to stave off hosepipe bans. Phil Bicknell, chief economist for the National Farmers Union, said the drop in yields would vary across the country depending on crops and soil types but that farm profits would inevitably be hit by reduced harvests. Increased irrigation will load additional costs on vegetable and fruit growers while livestock farmers are facing limited grazing and the prospect of high prices for winter fodder.

One estimate has already put the cost to the industry of £400m, though consumers are unlikely to be hit at the supermarket checkout yet as global yields which dictate farmgate prices are anticipated to be higher than last year's.

But the problem has not been limited to England, which is experiencing its sixth period of drought since 1976.

The European Union wheat harvest is expected to fall by seven million tons in 2011. In France, comparisons are already being made to the heatwave of 2003 in which 10,000 people died after the hottest March and May for a century.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is set to announce a €1bn relief package to farmers. Germany, meanwhile, has indicated that the production of bio-fuels could be hit because of the collapse of the rape seed harvest.

But the picture across Britain has been a contrasting one too. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) said Scotland had recorded its wettest May on record. This compared with Cambridge, which endured its lowest rainfall level since 1848.

This spring also saw record-breaking temperatures. Central England experienced an average of 10.3C (50.5F), the highest since monthly records began in 1659.

Drought in numbers

50% fall in wheat yields since the dry spell began

100 farmers have been ordered to stop abstracting water

4mm of rain fell in Kent in the whole of May

£400m estimated cost to farmers of the drought

6 the number of drought periods in England since 1976

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map