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Expect drought impact to spread, says rural officer

17 August 2022

Households may face a frugal Christmas as a consequence

Alamy

A farmer in Crantock, Cornwall, raises large dust clouds as he harrows his parched fields last week

A farmer in Crantock, Cornwall, raises large dust clouds as he harrows his parched fields last week

HOUSEHOLDS are facing a frugal Christmas as a consequence of the drought, one diocesan rural-affairs officer has warned.

“It will affect food prices, and things like Christmas greens will be in short supply,” Chris Batt, the rural-affairs officer in Truro diocese, said this week. A hosepipe ban came into effect in the region on Tuesday, despite flash floods in the city the same day.

“The springs at most of the farms in Cornwall that I have visited have dried up,” he said. “If it wasn’t for boreholes, a lot of farmers would be struggling to get water to their cattle. That has not happened since the drought of 1976. It is going to take a significant amount of rain just to top them up.

“The crops are looking really stressed, and some are going to be worthless even with the latest downpour. It’s been getting worse, year on year, for the last three or four years.”

Also, at the moment, there was no opportunity to re-plant or sow crops for the next season, Mr Batt continued. “The ground is like concrete. You can’t start ploughing: it’s just a dust bowl.”

Farmers have been using their winter silage to feed cattle because grazing is so parched. “If we get persistent rain for the next week or so, a lot of winter silage will come back, and they will be able to get a cut in,” he said.

“But the price of winter feed has already sky-rocketed. The knock-on effect of that will be felt in January, especially if we have a harsh winter.” He believes that produce yields will be low this year because of the water shortage; that will force shops to look abroad to keep their shelves full, pushing prices sharply upwards at the end of the year.

“On top of all that, there are a lot of problems with fuel poverty in rural communities,” he said. “Most are on oil or bottled gas; so it is a double whammy. Where it cost £500 to fill your oil tanks for the winter, it’s now £2500 to £3000. As a diocese, we are worrying about fuel poverty. Our older parishioners are not going to cope. The rural picture is black. My colleagues in Scotland, Kent, Suffolk — across the country — are all asking: ‘What are we going to do?’”

Hosepipe bans across the country have not created severe problems for churches. Many do not have a water supply to the graveyard, and those that do use only small amounts to fill memorial vases. Often people tending graves bring their own water. There are even unlikely bonuses — dry weather means grass isn’t growing, so less mowing and less cost; and churches are invariably cool inside, encouraging people in to cool down.

In the Leeds diocese, where a hosepipe ban comes into effect next Friday, officials have received an increased number of requests for advice on climate-change resilience. A spokesman said: “The DAC [diocesan advisory committee] has resources ready to share, and is developing a new online training programme on this important subject.” Enquiries also included a request for the installation of a double-barrelled-water-butt hut at one church.

Church House, Westminster, has produced guidance for churches seeking to improve their resilience amid climate change. A spokesman said: “Church buildings are often solidly built and, when maintained well, have withstood the weather over the centuries. However, as the climate changes, and weather events become more extreme, they can become vulnerable. We need to protect these precious buildings from harm.

“At the same time, our churches act as sanctuaries for their communities: they are often built on higher ground and more solidly constructed than the houses around them, so can be a place of safety during a flood, and can act as a cool sanctuary in a heatwave.”

Church House is running two webinars in November on preparing buildings for more extreme weather, and how to use them to protect your community.

The Cathedral and Church Buildings Division is also gathering case studies of climate-resilient churches to demonstrate what can be done. One highlights St Cuthbert’s, Croxteth Park, in Liverpool, where water butts now capture rain for the community garden. Although it is more at risk from drought than a regular churchyard, the gardeners never use hosepipes.

The provision of water supplies needed a “complete rethink”, George Dunn, a trustee of the Arthur Rank Centre, an ecumenical charity that helps rural communities, said on Friday.

“It has long been recognised that water is a key issue and we would do well to learn from what other countries with drier climates have been doing historically in terms of water harvesting, management, and use within the farming context” he said. “Facilitating new fixed equipment on farms for the collection and storage of water through the autumn and winter for use in the spring and summer must be the right approach to take. Some farms have already been doing this, but it is expensive and there are also planning issues involved which need to be overcome.”

Mr Dunn, who is also Chief Executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said that more thought was also needed on managing flood events. “It is completely inappropriate that farmers should be required to sacrifice their crops and fields at times when flood events occur in order to protect urban areas, often themselves built on floodplains. A more strategic approach needs to be taken wherein farmers are properly rewarded for providing those flood management services to their local areas.”

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