A couple are taking the Environment Agency to the high court in a landmark case to stop the abstraction of water damaging internationally important wetlands in the Norfolk Broads.
In a sign of the growing struggle over the allocation of scarce water resources in the dry south-east, Tim and Geli Harris are seeking to reduce the removal of groundwater to irrigate potatoes and other crops farmed next to three protected wetlands, including Hickling Broad national nature reserve.
The couple, who are farmers themselves, have spent £1m on legal challenges, winning a key battle six years ago when a public inquiry proved that abstraction licences were damaging critically endangered plants such as the fen orchid at Catfield Fen, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), which they in part own.
This victory forced the Environment Agency to assess how much abstraction reduces the flow of groundwater and pledge to keep reductions in groundwater flows in the protected section of the Ant valley to less than 5% rather than more than 50%, as was routinely occurring.
But the agency’s own data revealed that abstraction continued to reduce groundwater flows by more than 50% at more than two dozen locations close to three nearby SSSIs: Smallburgh Fen, Potter Heigham marshes and Hickling Broad, which is renowned for being the richest area for stoneworts in Britain.
The Harrises are taking the agency to a judicial review next month, arguing that it is legally obliged under the habitats directive – the EU protections enshrined in British law – to protect these sites by reducing abstraction.
“Once you damage a calcareous fen it’s gone – you can’t mend it. It’s like a rainforest,” said Tim Harris.
The Harrises fear that the Environment Agency’s refusal to take action will weaken the protections provided by the habitats directive in Britain – with an appeal to the European courts no longer available after Brexit.
Tim Harris said: “This is such an important case because if we lose, the Environment Agency can do whatever it likes in terms of abstraction … If we lose this case, God help nature.”
The Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland, with a quarter of its species internationally protected, including the swallowtail butterfly and Norfolk hawker dragonfly, but the region has half the annual rainfall of Sydney, Australia.
Farmers obtain licences from the Environment Agency to extract water from the Broads’ river systems, irrigating high-value crops such as potatoes. Since 2004, farmers have been able to sell their abstraction licences to neighbours, ensuring that every licence is fully exploited.
A Natural England study in 2019 found that the major cause of extinctions in the Ant valley over the past 50 years had been due to abstraction, which has reduced the flow of calcareous groundwater, leading to more acidic rainwater, the acidification of the fen and the loss of rare plants that thrive in alkaline conditions.
Farmers argue that given the cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine it is more important than ever to grow food in Britain.
But Tim Harris, who with Geli turned arable fields on their 460-acre farm to pasture when they bought it 30 years ago to help protect their 100 acres of fen, where bittern, crane and swallowtails breed, said this was not an argument over food security.
“We are farmers. This is not about whether you can farm or not, it’s about yields and crop choice. Abstraction raises the value of land by 15-20% so we say: is it right that we destroy Britain’s premier wetland for a 15-20% increase in yield? It’s not about food security, it’s about yield and profit. And by far the biggest employer in the area is tourism.”
The Environment Agency’s plans to reduce abstraction include closing public pumping facilities, with Broadland villages supplied with water piped in from Norwich.
A spokesperson from the Environment Agency said they could not comment on the legal challenge, but added: “Since 2018 when our technical work began we have invested significant time in seeking long-term environmental protection for the Ant valley, through identifying and implementing sustainable solutions for water and businesses.
“We have achieved this by working with farmers, businesses and in collaboration with other agencies. This activity has been conducted in addition to us performing our legal duties as regulator.”
According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), irrigation helps produce more than 50% of potatoes and 25% of all vegetables and fruit grown nationally, with almost half this production concentrated in East Anglia.
Kelly Hewson-Fisher, national water resources specialist for the NFU, said: “The Broads is a unique ecosystem and the farmers who live and work there recognise their responsibilities to manage the countryside and protect the environment, as well as working to meet the growing demand for quality British food.
“Our ability to meet this demand relies on access to a secure water supply, a supply that is coming under increasing pressure regionally due to factors including housing growth and climate change.”
The NFU said that farm businesses were taking practical steps to maximise water efficiency with rainwater collection and on-farm reservoirs, and that the sector was working with Water Resources East on “a long-term strategic plan for water resources that aims to meet the needs of agriculture, the environment and the public”.