Warm Easter heralds long dry summer

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Gardeners stepping out into the Easter sunshine yesterday may find that their newly purchased plants are in peril from an increasingly dry climate.

According to the London Weather Centre, this March has been one of Britain's warmest this century. As the nation basked in the warmth, water companies and weather experts predicted a deepening drought.

A hot spell during the middle of the month followed by several days of reasonable temperatures has given March a particularly spring-like feel, the centre said. The average temperature has been 8.2C (46F) compared to only 4.5C (40F) last year.

The last such March was in 1990, when the warm spring preceded a scorching summer of record temperatures.

With the hot weather there invariably come bans on hosepipes and sprinklers. According to the Environment Agency, Britain is facing a water crisis this summer.

The government body said that Britain was in its driest period for 150 years after almost two years of low rainfall.

It predicted that hosepipe bans would be necessary, especially in the south-east and east of England, which depend on the much-depleted groundwater sources for up to two-thirds of their supplies.

Since April 1995 Britain has been deprived of the equivalent of four months of winter rainfall. Although a wet February brought a slight relief, this month has been exceptionally dry. The sunny weather is set to make it the sixth-warmest March this century.

One reason for the temperature rise is the presence in the atmosphere of "greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide. In the United Kingdom, temperatures are expected to climb by about 0.2 per cent degrees Centigrade per decade, with the result that extremely warm seasons, such as the hot summer of 1995, will occur much more frequently.

Climate change could add an extra 5 per cent on to the 12 per cent increase in water demand already expected in southern England between now and 2021.

Nevertheless, the overall rainfall totals for the past decade have been within the "normal" range. It is the fact that the unusually hot summers have occurred in clusters that has created such problems for the water industry.

Not that climate change was foremost in the minds of those at B&Q yesterday, where the DIY and gardening chain moved its cash registers out of doors in order to beat the ban on Easter Sunday trading.

The company was able to sell gardening products through a loophole in the 1994 Sunday Trading Act, which bans large stores from opening on Sundays, but allows goods to be sold if they and the cash tills are only covered by a "canopy or gazebo". The provision allowed B&Q to open 10 of its garden centres, in a move which has infuriated the Keep Sunday Special campaign.