The drought of 2011 has continued into 2012 after the winter months failed to provide sufficient rain to recharge ground waters adequately. Parts of the south and east of England have been officially in drought since June 2011.
Although most habitats and species are resilient in the face of drought, additional human pressures such as abstraction and pollution can reduce their ability to cope with extended periods of low rainfall. Prolonged, warm, dry weather can also lead to the closure of foot paths and public rights of way where there is an increased risk of wildfires.
Natural England’s responsibilities with regards to drought management include:
We advise government, industry, farmers, local communities and interest groups on the impact of drought on protected habitats, species and the wider natural environment. Although drought is a natural process human activity can make its effects more damaging (see Drought and the natural environment). Natural England works with Defra, the Environment Agency, the water companies and bodies such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts to find ways to increase the resilience of the natural environment to drought through the better management of water resources.
Natural England is consulted by water companies on their Water Resource Management Plans and Drought Plans where these might affect protected habits and species. In times of water shortage we are also consulted on applications for Drought Orders and Drought Permits that allow more water to be taken from rivers, lakes and ground water. The Environment Agency also consults with us over licences to abstract water for agriculture where this activity might affect protected areas. These consultations help reduce the impact of abstraction on sensitive sites during drought.
Natural England administers agri-environment funding schemes such as Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) which promote environmentally-friendly farming. If customers are unable to meet their obligations due to drought they can apply for a derogation to release them temporarily from some of the obligations of their agreement. For more information see our Environmental Stewardship Derogations page.
Natural England directly manages many National Nature Reserves (NNRs). Although habitats and species on these reserves are generally resilient in the face of drought there is sometimes a need to manage habitat to help vulnerable wildlife such as amphibians, fish and wading birds. For example, ponds important to breeding wildlife (such as Natterjack toads) can be kept topped up on some sites, while on others it’s often useful to adjust drainage regimes so that water is retained on-site for as long as possible.
We also advise managers and owners of SSSIs on the management of their sites during drought and can provide consents for additional activities should they be required.
Under certain circumstances Natural England may have to restrict access to Open Access land when the Fire Severity Index indicates an exceptional risk of fire. This is done as a safety measure to help reduce the likelihood of accidental wildfires.
We will issue regular updates on the impact of drought on protected areas, access, habitats and wildlife.