St Albans farmers’ drought fears

FARMERS are bracing themselves for one of the driest spring seasons in decades with one saying his St Albans farm has had just 12mm of rain in nearly three months.

Bill Barr, who grows wheat, linseed, oats and oilseed rape at Dane End Farm, Redbourn, said the dry spell was, “the worst I have ever had as a farmer. It is worse than 1976, when we had the last drought.”

A farmer for about four decades, Bill said the 700-acre farm was dependent upon rain to water crops. He explained: “We have had a total of 12mm of rain on our farm since February 27, which is unprecedented.”

He added: “There is nothing we can do. We can’t irrigate as there is no water for us to extract.”

Bill said irrigation equipment was expensive, not economically viable and that you would, “need to go to the moon and back three times” to get a licence to take water from rivers.

While he was trying to be optimistic, his barley and oat crops were “really struggling to cope as they have been going through their growth stages very, very quickly.”

Bill said: “The crop is only about eight inches high, and it would normally be up to your thigh, but it’s up to your calf if you are lucky.”

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He anticipated a marked drop in crop yields, which in turn would impact on stock feed. Even if it did suddenly pour with rain, he believes the damage has already been done.

Harpenden farmer Ian Pigott, whose family has been farming for more than 500 years, said that Thrales End Farm had also had little or no rain since February and that any rain now “would be a little bit late.”

But he was pragmatic about the lack of rainfall, saying: “It is one of the challenges of farming.” Ian conceded that while it was likely to be a poor year for crop yields, “we haven’t had a drought of this severity since 1976.”

Researchers at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden said heavy loam soils would fare better than sandy counterparts because of better water retention and that should there be no significant rainfall soon, farmers could expect to grow two to three tonnes less wheat per acre.


Barry Gromett, a forecaster at the Met Office, confirmed that 1976 was the driest spring on record in Hertfordshire but 2011 was on course to set a new record for a dry spring.

A spokeswoman for Veolia Water said a combination of low winter rainfall and recent dry weather meant water resources were lower than usual for the time of year but were considered to be at a reasonable level.

While demand for water was high, she added: “We don’t anticipate any restrictions this year, however we would always encourage our customers to use water wisely.”

Meanwhile Water UK has issued a statement on behalf of the water industry criticising “misleading reporting on restrictions.”

It said: “Media stories suggesting the ‘inevitable’ prospect of water shortages this summer do not reflect the true position.

“There is no indication that companies will need to impose restrictions on water supply over the summer.”