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GB area available to irrigate in decline over recent years

Publication Date: 
27 July 2018

Peter Collier, Analyst,, 02476478851

Irrigation has been of greater importance in 2018 than in recent years, as lack of rainfall has been impacting quality, yields and dry matter content.

Following one of the driest June’s on record, data on the planted area that had irrigation available according to the AHDB 2017 Planting Returns has been collected. There are clear divergences between geographical locations, market sectors and within varieties.

In 2017, the percentage of the GB planted area available to be irrigated stood at 48.8%. Breaking this down at a country level, England, Scotland and Wales represented 53.2%, 33.3% and 40.5% respectively.

Following the current dry and hot weather, an availability to irrigate might not necessarily transpire to actual irrigation. With hands off flow conditions being put in place for agricultural licences, reportedly to the greatest extent in the West Midlands, added with evapotranspiration rates outstripping the ability to apply water, the actual proportion that is irrigated may be lower.

Figure 1 illustrates that there has been a decreasing trend in the proportion of GB planted areas with irrigation available over recent years. In terms of the total area that has irrigation available, there has been a marginal decline from a high in 2007 to a low in 2015. Since 2016, the total absolute area with irrigation available has increased somewhat, driven by an increase in the overall planted area over the past two seasons.

Figure 2 breaks down the English area into regions, on an indexed scale from 2005 to show the percentage change.

Within the English regions from 2005, the main growing regions of the Eastern counties and the East Midlands have seen little overall change to the area that has irrigation available. The South West and North East areas however have seen considerable declines in the area able to be irrigated and to a lesser extent so too the South East and North West.

Looking at regional rainfall data, although the regions are not directly comparable, insight can be gained into where the largest impact of the dry weather may have been in conjunction with the availability of irrigation.

The South East rainfall data region shows the largest difference between June rainfall in 2018 and the long term average. The declining prevalence of irrigation in the South East planting return region may place additional pressure on this regions ability to manage a lack of rainfall.  

The South West is another region of large difference between the June 2018 rainfall and the long term average. With the area available for irrigation in 2017 half that of 2005, later planted main crop may be facing more pressure than in other regions.

The central region for rainfall, encompassing much of the Eastern and Midlands planting region data saw rainfall in April well above the long term average and average rainfall in May. Yet as with other regions in the GB, June was exceptionally hot and dry.

However, with the largest prevalence of available irrigation and the June lack of rainfall somewhat to a lesser extent than in other regions, the ability to manage the lack of rainfall may be better than other GB regions. 

Exploring the area with irrigation available by intended market sector, the processing and fresh chipping area has remained fairly constant from 2005 to 2017. Conversely, the pre pack area recorded a contraction in the area that had irrigation available from 2011 to 2015, with only a minimal expansion seen from 2015 to 2017.

In the retail market, with appearance of skin critical, a declining area of irrigation may leave this market sector more susceptible to drought conditions than the processing and chipping sectors. With the pre pack sector more dependent upon appearance, the processing and chipping sectors are likely to be able to manage surface defects to a greater extent.


The weather has caused many challenges to growers this season, with the wet, cold spring being replaced with the hot, dry conditions currently being experienced. Irrigation systems, where in place, have helped to manage much of the drought like conditions, but these are now reported to be under stress in many areas. While we cannot control the vagaries of the British weather, we can have input over how best to mitigate any adverse effects. By creating an understanding of the area available for irrigation, we can begin to get an understanding of the area of GB crop that might be suffering more from drought stress due to lack of irrigation.


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