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