Midhurst and Petworth farmers hope for rain

Farmers and growers in the Midhust and Petworth area are pinning their hopes on heavy rain for the rest of March in a bid to avert a water crisis later this summer.

Richard Chandler farms 1,500 acres at Moor Farm on the outskirts of Petworth, concentrating on cereal crops.

He told the Observer this week: “It’s a bit early in the year really, to say yet whether there will be a water crisis in this area, but if it rains all through March we will probably be alright.”

Half an inch of rain fell last weekend and Mr Chandler said all growers were hoping the rainy trend would continue for the rest of the month.

He said the great concern was that water levels in reservoirs were currently very low.

But farmers in the West Sussex area were not currently experiencing the same problems as those in other parts of the country where the water shortage meant farmers were being prevented from extracting water from rivers which they were entitled to do under licences from the Environment Agency.

“It’s not something we do ourselves,” said Mr Chandler, “and I haven’t heard of anyone in this area who has been prevented from extracting water, I believe it is mostly in the East Anglia area.”

Mr Chandler said water for the Rother Valley was taken from the River Rother, from underground aquifers and a pipeline under the Downs from Portsmouth.

Farmers in the area were keeping an eye on water levels, said Mr Chandler: “We need it to rain like mad through March. By April we should know better what the situation will be this summer.”

The south east of England is now in a state of drought, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced following the direst ten months on record since 1888.

Members of the Country Landowners Association have called on the government to ensure agriculture is given priority for scarce water resources to prevent food shortages.

South-east regional director of the CLA Rupert Ashby said: “Agriculture is under incredible pressure as a result of the lack of rain through the winter.

“Other sectors have statutory powers and priority over agriculture, but to ensure good and environmental security it is vital we are given our fair share of water.”

He urged the government to think about extending permitted development rights to build on-farm reservoirs. “This could make a real difference during any drought, particularly using flexible abstractions to allow efficient recharge of reservoirs.”

And the RSPB is warning that if the drought continues, it could spell disaster.

Paul Spiers, warden at RSPB Pulborough Brooks, said: “Our natural spring lines and surface water run-off have really slowed down. “At the moment our water levels are down on average winter conditions and we are taking steps to hang on to all the water we can on the reserve.

“If the low rainfall persists in March, spring conditions for breeding waders on the reserve will be far from ideal. The offspring of birds that breed on wet meadows must find their own food as soon as they hatch.”