Blog: Lessons from the recent Drought

What steps can you take to protect your business and the environment?
Body of water.jpg

Following an extraordinarily early harvest, many farmers are now well through their winter operations. Now, is as good a time to reflect on this year’s drought as we tip-toe into November. But the drought hasn’t just had significant impacts on arable operations. On livestock farms supplementary feeding began in August, a winter routine for most livestock farmers. This is just one reminder, among many that the sector is not immune to extremes in weather. So what steps can we undertake to build in resilience to the land. Not just improving our ability to withstand the worst of a dry spell but also the worst of what winter can throw at us.

This will require many different types of investment in your property, with some measures being cheap low hanging fruit and some requiring significant undertakings. With some measures yielding a quicker response, such installing a better water system on the farm versus the continued improvement in soil organic matter. What members need to consider is a myriad of measures which will adapt to change, improve the environment but will also importantly improve your bottom line.


317380281_2757691421031384_3530696030612317610_n (002).jpg

Fodder production has been down, not just in the UK but in a number of regions around the world. One way that we can improve resilience is by improving the condition of the soil. This will require work over several years and actions will be subject to the conditions on the farm, but one thing is for certain. There is no time like the present to start making a concerted effort to improve the soil.

Contrary to some of the noise surrounding cattle, there exists a significant body of literature which hails cattle as a major solution. As the cattle, act as mobile nutritional cement mixers, such large herbivores are essential in any environment’s nutrient cycle. It is worth passing comment, that one of the many nutrient cycles that farmers manage is the Carbon cycle. Therefore we would strongly advise farmers to consider their position before looking to sell their farm’s carbon in enforceable contracts that could last many decades. Your business may need to retain all your Carbon units, for future demand by Government or your own supply chain. As many supermarkets are now asking for their supply chain, your primary income source, to reduce their carbon emissions but can you meet these new demands if you no longer control your carbon?

Not only will improved soils lead to better yields, reduced inputs it will also come with wider benefits. Benefits which will carry different weight in different situations, such as water retention, carbon sequestration, soil biodiversity and better soil temperature stability. Members will be aware that there is public money available in this area and it is worth checking the CLA webpage. Particularly for those with livestock, as there will increasing scrutiny of slurry storage and spreading, so we recommend that you make use of public money where it is available.

For some of our nation’s hungry soils, as underlined this summer, many areas have visibly suffered from the drought. It is worth considering having livestock on small areas of land in high density for short periods. If you are required to bring supplementary feed, such as round bales, onto the land this will help build organic matter. The reason for having the cattle on the land in high density, for short period to allow rest, is so that the soil gets an even meaningful application of excretion. But it is always worth reminding members that if you have land in protected areas or in certain environmental schemes there may be limitations.

While such improvements may take years to manifest there is no better time to start investing in your soils. As they will repay you over the years through reduced erosion, better water management and a gradual change of the soil chemistry resulting in a reduced appetite for increasingly expensive inorganic fertiliser. There is no one who needs to be told that fertiliser prices have inflated significantly this year. Taking the case of AN (34.5%), according to AHDB, prices increased by 157% between July 2021 and July 2022. These prices reflect wider energy inflation, with many producers deciding not to produce inorganic fertiliser due to the high prices of energy, which we expect to continue over winter and beyond due to the current geopolitical climate. A telling announcement, among many, has been that Yara will be reducing European fertiliser production by 3.1 million tonnes of ammonia, 1.8 million tonnes urea, 1.9 million tonnes nitrates and 0.3 million tonnes NPK. The pressures have pushed many firms to move a greater share of production out of Europe and towards the US primarily. These financial pressures should help push those who have been slower to look at their soil to really start giving it the attention it deserves.

Water Management


Not only will improved soil conditions make a big difference but there are other aspects that members can look at to improve their resilience. Before we explore some of these options, it is worth reminding members that there are farm cross compliance requirements, including NVZ requirements, necessitating land managers protect their soil from erosion. Not only does this protect you from penalties but it also protects your most valuable asset, the soil and any residual nutrition you have in the land.

We encourage members to keep an eye out for future rounds of the government’s Farming Transformation Fund, as there may be items that can assist you on the farm. Even though this article, hasn’t emphasised production from the land, this remains the key goal for all land managers and cannot be forgotten as we move into a post-BPS world. For you cannot be green if you are in the red. Added to this is the sobering fact, that we are generally insulated from here in the UK, is that every year approximately 1 billion people suffer from starvation. A problem which has not been helped recently by the impact of Covid and the Ukraine war on our supply chains.

Another tool that members should consider is the construction of on-farm reservoirs to help store the winters excesses and provide a source of water during dry periods. Please note that you will need to carefully consider how much storage capacity will be required. Unfortunately land management will always be in a dependent and reactive relationship with the weather, but we can take steps to better protect our position.

For more information about the creation of a farm reservoir please see the CLA Handbook which is available for purchase here and also my previous blog - The practicalities of creating a farm reservoir.

We recommend members look towards the CLA Water Strategy for more information.


Trees in South Downs.jpg

Trees represent a excellent way to provide shade and shelter for animals, but balance does have to be struck as tree planting reduces the extent of your productive land. As with all land management decisions, it is a trade-off. As land managers we should avoid looking for a single golden bullet, and it depends on what you want to achieve. As some members will be looking to sequester as much carbon as possible and improved soil organic matter can, in some situations (all being equal), absorb more carbon, as well as excess water, than trees. But that is not to say that trees don’t hold a very important position in having a balanced and healthy environment which will provide indirect economic benefits to a farmer.

The stresses of the recent hot summers 2018, 2019 and 2022 has put many of our nation’s trees under significant stress which has not been helped by the winter storms, such as Arwen, which we have to endure. All these reduce the quality of the trees and makes the trees more susceptible to disease. It is again worth reiterating the absence of an single solution. Improved soil, drainage, improved irrigation capacity and species selection can all go towards improving your resilience. But as climate change is being views as increasingly important you may also want to look at different species.

Due to the longevity of trees, there is an increasing pressure for them to be resilient to future temperate extremes. Many foresters are looking at selecting trees that are more at home three degrees south of your position. Based off of Birmingham heading three degrees south would take you in line with approximately Paris. So you may decide to look at some species that may be more suited to a changing climate and consider moving away from certain species that originate from Britain or the northern American Pacific Coast.

This longevity of trees, should also give us food for thought. As trees can be a good additional tool to sequester carbon. But you need to consider the alternative land uses against the planting of trees, as well as many what ifs. What if we have more extremes in weather or new tree diseases / pests? What will be the net impact of these shocks? How will such shocks, along with species selection, impact how much carbon can be sequestered and the economic impact of planting large areas (not just the loss of productive land but if a third party owns this carbon)? As many tree species only start becoming noticeable carbon sinks after some 20 to 30 years. In the case of the 30 year date, that would take us to 2052. With the current pace of change, you should still plant trees but you should also consider other ways to sequester carbon as well as improve efficiency to reduce emissions.


While trees lend themselves more to changed selection, it is something that all land managers will have to consider. Shall arable rotations alter their make-up, notwithstanding all the other aspects that must be considered, and the varieties selected. Or will there be more fundamental changes be seen such as an increase in the land being devoted to the production of grapes?

Selections may also need to be made for livestock. Considering what mix of species works best on each farm and what traits should be selected for. Whilst it is worth not selecting, just for traits / breeds associated with different climates it may be something for consideration in a few cases. That being said, nothing will trump basic good husbandry (nutrition, disease / pest prevalence, housing / conditions etc) and the appropriate infrastructure (such as water troughs and shelter) to deal with extremes in weather.

Not only will genetics, be something that we should look at. The amount of change in this area may see a vast acceleration if the Government’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill becomes law in the near future.


Energy services .jpg

Following on from the importance of energy prices on fertiliser, it is worth ensuring that your business is resilient to future energy demands. To look at both your supply resilience and the efficiency of your energy usage. On the supply front, members should not forget that parts of the nation were left without power following the storms last winter and this summer there was nearly a blackout in East London due to a bottleneck in the National Grid. A pressure that will only grow. As the National Grid will struggle to keep up with the pressures associated with the electrification of Britain, which will equate to an approximate doubling in the demand of electricity. This will have an impact on members by the extension of power lines across the nation over the coming decades. For more information please click here.

Due to the risks associated with a system that will be under increased pressure we recommend members consider having their own on productive capacity. This can range from renewables with battery storage or simply a diesel generator, depending on your business requirements. We also recommend that members contact CLA Energy to see if they could help with your bill.

However, it isn’t just looking at your supply. Members should take a strong look at usage. How it can be cut or efficiency improved.

A World Tour – What others are doing

It is prudent to look at what others are doing around the world, to learn from what they have done under more acute pressure than here on our temperate island. As with all land management, we must make trade-offs and use appropriate tools for the specific site in question.


A successful 500 acre project in north-west India’s Jaipur region has demonstrated the huge environmental, social and economic gains that can be made within a short period following professional land improvement. The project started out to revegetate 50 acres of barren area of land which was at risk of desertification in Dhun. The project looked to remedy the loss of the land’s topsoil following a flood in 1981. The land has recently been made green by creating bunds to catch and hold seasonal rains. Reducing the impact of flash floods whilst simultaneously improving drought resilience.

The second major strand which the project has implemented in order to improve the environment was to bring livestock back onto the land. To provide organic matter to the hungry soil and help break up the crust of a land surface with their hooves. The use of a few scattered specialist trees has contributed to the improvement of the land.


On a larger scale Israel has been able to create highly productive agricultural land in the Nagev and Jordan Deserts following huge infrastructural investments. Britain may consider similar regional projects if such extremes in weather become an increasing issue, with the South and East of the nation being more acutely affected. Even on the farm level, there are always opportunities to create on farm storage, to reuse water and to use pipe and channels to move water around. Each farm will have its own opportunities to more efficiently use water, here in the Midlands members can contact the CLA or Catchment Sensitive Farming and Severn Trent for help in improving your farm’s water management.

In a wider context beyond purely agricultural use, Israel naturally pays more attention to the efficient use of water to ensure that water is not wasted. For example average water loss via leaks in the UK come to about 30% whereas in Israel it is less than 10%. In periods of drought, the importance of every drop cannot be underestimated but this will require many years of heavy investment to tackle this problem. Notwithstanding the everyday water discipline that every citizen, from the house to the farm, can adopt to help reduce water waste. We should look at the accumulation of small wins and not just look to grand projects when considering our water security.


In Africa, impressive results have been achieved in a relatively short period of time in re-greening parts of this brittle continent where desertification is such a risk. Of some of the projects that are currently being undertaken on the continent, many projects are being associated with the work of Alan Savory, who triumphs and who really justifies the use of the regenerative farming term, delivering economic, social and environmental gains. As he has looked at management of the land, including the use of livestock to replenish so much of our land which is at risk of desertification. That being said, there are many parts of the UK, especially arable areas that may need to consider actions undertaken by Mr Savory. He calls for us to use herbivores in a manner that replicates nature, i.e. to mimic their movement of large dense herds in order to create an environment that creates sustainable nutrient, water and energy flows, which has led to positive associated biodiversity gains.

Despite the evident difference between Shropshire and the Serengeti, we can still draw value from what goes on elsewhere, but also at different times. Some of the practices that Mr Savory employs reminds me of some of the work undertaken by the improvers of 18th Century Aberdeenshire, who demonstrated that the practice can work in the UK under variable circumstances. As these bygone individuals were also forced to improve the soil after many centuries of neglect and unsympathetic land use which led to serious deterioration. These early modern farmers created a rotational system, on the outlying land, with 10 divisions, one of these divisions was a temporary enclosure to house cattle overnight and during lunch, with four other divisions being down to grass for grazing. So that this small area of land was fully and heavily dunged. This area was then followed by five years of oats or until the yields began to fall, whichever came sooner. This early system seems to have been successful in building up soil that allowed improved yields, choice of crops with wider benefits in generating local wealth and in facilitating population growth. There is some uncertainty, as to whether such improvements reduced the pressure on nature, within the wider context of the time, as improved production meant that there was less forces requiring land to be converted to agriculture.

Permafrost – Russia, Canada and Alaska

I recently watched a Ben Fogel episode, where he visited the vast Boreal Forest that runs across the north of Russia. While many of us are aware of the research that states planning trees on bog here in the UK may have a net negative impact. It was testing, in this episode, where a scientist, Nikita Zimov, indicated that the presence of one of the world’s largest forest may be on balance a bad thing. As the trees that make up this vast forest play a key part, not just global emission, in the destruction of the permafrost, a huge store of carbon. To put it in context the rich frozen soils that run across the north of the globe contain 3 times more carbon than all of the world’s trees.

To be precise the permafrost, according to a University of Cambridge study is a store of some 40% of the world’s carbon. The warming of this region is expected to release some 4.35 billion tons a year over the rest of the century. Such emissions cannot simply be attributed to climate change, but must also consider local land management. The afforestation of this vast area across the northern hemisphere and dearth of large herbivores has allowed vast woodlands to become established has been raised as a massive problem in this unique environment. Not only has there been a reduction in biodiversity, over an areas which was once an ‘Arctic Savannah,’ with an estimated average of one mammoth, 5 bison, 7.5 horses, 15 reindeer, and one wolf on ever square kilometre according to the study. Animals who lived in a mosaic of landscapes rather than the current blanket of monotonous forest. With these trees acting like hairs on the body, providing an insulating layer across the huge areas of land and their dark colour has enhanced the warming effect. As the dark trees absorb the sun’s energy more readily than the alternative increased area of snow, ice and grasses which would reflect much of the sun’s energy. This phenomenon is called the albedo effect.

This builds on a 2021 study by McMaster University who worked in conjunction with the WWF. In this study it was found that 94% of Canada’s carbon is stored within the top 1 meter of soil. These findings only emphasis the need for us all to first look to protecting, improving our soils and to make sure that it is a healthy living environment. An environment, which in all these examples, need the presence of large herbivores to recycle material. Not only that herbivores prevent the establishment of shrubby species, that in some cases, can out compete other species and slowly reduce the environment’s health. An extreme example would be looking at the dead areas of some of our sitka spruce plots. But with all things, it must be assessed on a case by case. As using the sitka spruce plots as an example must be caveated, by the fact that we set aside these areas of land to efficiently produce high quality timber, locking up carbon in material and reduce our need on alternative materials such as steel.

The above examples provide an indication that there exists a multitude of tools available for land managers to improve their resilience to climatic changes. But each land manager needs to look at everything on a case by case basis. The specifics of each proposal, within its context is vital and we must always ensure that we have a strong economic base. As to permit individuals to invest time and money into environmental improvement, whether that be planting trees or wild flowers.

We advise members to check out the CLA’s agricultural transition webpage to see what options there are to help you. Members can also contact their local office for more information.

Key contact:

John Greenshields - Resized.jpg
John Greenshields Rural Surveyor, CLA Midlands