'Dustbowl Britain' Risks Repeat of 1976 Drought

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Byline: David Derbyshire Environment Editor

THE near-drought that has created dustbowl conditions in parts of Britain is expected to stretch into June.

The Met Office forecasts a fortnight of warm, mostly dry weather from this weekend, scuppering the hopes of gardeners and farmers desperate for rain. In East Anglia the soil is as hard as concrete, while in Essex some farmers have seen only half an inch of rain since February. The parched conditions have provoked fears of hosepipe bans, forest fires and food price rises.

The latest warning came as the Environment Secretary hosted an emergency summit on the summer drought threat.

Although water companies are confident of keeping supplies going throughout the summer, Caroline Spelman warned against complacency and called for more updates. Last week the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology warned that large parts of southern Britain were suffering from the worst drought conditions since 1976. England and Wales experienced the lowest March and April rainfall for decades, while April was the warmest since records began 100 years ago.

In the past seven months, they have had just 61 per cent of the normal rainfall. Rivers and reservoirs are lower than normal across the country.

Essex arable farmer Guy Smith, 52, said it was the driest spring in more than 100 years and he fears he could lose half his crop. 'It's the most vicious drought that I've ever known,' he said. 'We've had half an inch of rain since February - just 10 per cent of the rain we would normally get.

'The soil is like concrete. It's deeply cracked and it's as hard as rock. It hurts your ankles to walk across the land. These are northern African conditions.' Grass is growing so slowly that livestock farmers are concerned that hay and straw production will be hit, sending costs and prices soaring.

Farmers in Kent have been told to stop taking water out of the Medway, while four regions - the South-West, Wales, Midlands and East Anglia - are officially described by the Environment Agency as in a 'potential drought status'. …