Support for farmers in England dealing with impacts of dry weather

More support for farmers in England has been set out to help them deal with the impacts of some of the driest weather for decades, Defra has confirmed.

The measures mean that they will have the option to relax rules in their agri-environment scheme agreements, to make it easier to provide vital food for livestock.

The changes come into effect from today and last until the end of 2022, and allow agreement holders in the Countryside Stewardship or Environmental Stewardship schemes to take steps such as cutting or grazing additional areas of land to help ease shortages of bedding, fodder, grazing or forage crops.

A full list of these easements has been published by the Rural Payment Agency (RPA) and includes steps, such as allowing ‘buffer strips’ and field corners to be cut early. Guidance has also been made available to inform farmers how to record the adjustments they have made.

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The new rules will help increase access to bedding, fodder, grazing or forage in ways that limit its environmental impact. Forage crops – those fed to livestock or plants grown to then be cut for food – are also being impacted as less silage is made and farmers are feeding stocks to their livestock now, instead of saving them for the winter months.

It comes as, last week, the Environment Agency declared drought status for large parts of England, including the South West, South East and East, with Yorkshire added on Tuesday 16 August.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We are better prepared than ever before for these unprecedented dry conditions, but many farmers are concerned about water supplies and the impact on their crops and livestock.

“We are, therefore, introducing temporary easements on agri-environment schemes to give them the flexibility to respond.”

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Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, added: “We know that farmers are facing pressures as they deal with the consequences of these exceptionally dry conditions, and we hope these practical steps will help farmers safeguard food production and help with animal welfare.

“We are committed to supporting agreement holders as much as we can during this difficult period and help ensure that they can maintain existing environmental commitments.”

Through its agriculture monitoring groups and working closely with industry organisations, Defra is continuing to assess the impacts from dry weather and is considering what further steps can be taken in the coming weeks.

Defra recognises long term planning for on-farm water infrastructure is needed, which is why in November 2021 the Rural Payments Agency launched the Water Management grant, where £10 million was provided for farmers to improve on-farm water management, such as water reservoirs and new irrigation systems. Further rounds of funding for new applicants will open in the autumn.

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Last month, the Rural Payment Agency also issued guidance on how to deal with difficulties arising from unusual weather affecting farming schemes, including Countryside Stewardship, Environmental Stewardship, Farm Woodland Premium Scheme and the Woodland Grant Scheme.

The Environment Agency is working closely with farmers to support the industry and a package of measures to help with access to water has been introduced in order to safeguard food production and animal welfare without causing harm to the environment.

These include options for farmers to access water, including through the use of short term water rights trading between licence holders and allowing flexibility with abstraction licences where the Environment Agency can ensure that the environment and other users will be protected. Where there is a real or imminent threat to crops and livestock, farmers should contact the Environment Agency to discuss availability of water.

There is no immediate threat to food supply as a result of the current hot weather, and the UK has a high degree of food security built on supply from diverse sources, strong domestic production as well as imports through stable trade routes.