How we are helping to protect the UK’s precious water resources

22 March 2023

With climate change beginning to affect the UK’s fruit farmers, we take an in-depth look at one of our collective action projects where a simple solution is helping to ensure we can continue to enjoy the taste of the British summer.

We’re at Mockbeggar Farm, on the edge of the North Kent Marshes. It’s a name which could have come straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, and indeed we are close to the spot where his novel, Great Expectations, opens with a description of the nearby River Thames; the life force of this region for centuries.

As it happens, the owner of Mockbeggar, John Myatt, tells us that the original 1946 version of Great Expectations was partly filmed on his family’s farm. It’s a reminder of how long Kent people have been stewards of this land; John and his family have been growing fruit of some kind for nearly a century.

Strawberries at Mockbeggar Farm

Known as The Garden of England, Kent has long been established as one of the UK’s most important areas for sourcing fruit. The earliest mentions of apples and cherries growing in Kent come during Roman times. Today, the countryside is a patchwork of more than 2700 farms and smallholdings, many of them growing fruit of every shape, size and flavour – 90% of the country’s cherries, and half of the supply of plums come from this one county.

The many certificates standing on the mantlepiece attest to the pride John, his wife Kim and daughter Alex, take in the quality of soft and stone fruit – strawberries, raspberries, plums, apricots, cherries to name a few - they supply to brighten up the nation’s summers, through their company Myatt’s.

“When I walk out just before harvest and look out on a really nice crop, and take in the nature - the dragonflies buzzing around, on a beautiful day, that is still very satisfying!”

How much longer?

But this industry, so intrinsic to the British summer, is under increasing pressure from a myriad of threats, including that of water scarcity amplified by climate change. This year, Kent was one of many areas to be officially declared as suffering from drought after what officials said had been one of the driest summers for 50 years. The lack of rainfall was compounded by searing heat which can scorch fruit and run the risk of wildfires.

According to UK Climate Projections, Kent faces:
  • Hotter summer temperatures & warmer winters
  • Drier summers – with rainfall predicted to fall 30-50% by 2080
  • Wetter winters – with rainfall predicted to increase by 20-30% by 2080.

We’re at Myatt’s for a site visit with Dr Samantha Hughes, who runs the Holistic Water for Horticulture project for the South East Rivers Trust, and Rowen West-Henzell, who is leading on WRAP’s Courtauld 2030 collective water action projects.

John admits this summer has been tough: “It’s been a really, really difficult summer. We’ve had to ration water which has meant the size of some produce like orchard fruit has suffered….. We had our first fire because of the dryness. It was caught, but it was close to a field full of cherries. It was scary stuff.”

“It seems obvious to say it, but we cannot do our job, and we cannot grow fruit, without water. Unless we get better at saving it, we will not have enough.”

The drought this year forced John to rely more heavily on mains water to ensure his crops survived. It’s not only expensive, but means the business is tapping into an increasingly precious resource which serves the whole community. 

Explains John: “We want to do the right thing, and we are very conscious that saving water is the right thing to do for us as an investment in the future, economically, and environmentally; but it is also the right thing to do for the community and the South East.”

The solution

Fortunately, through his engagement with the Courtauld Commitment’s collective action project in the Medway, Kent, John has found a simple, but highly effective solution. 

With the support of Sam, John was able to conduct surface water drainage mapping to see where water naturally collects on his farm. This has enabled him to pinpoint several sites where he could potentially collect the water which falls naturally during the winter and pump it back to a nearby reservoir he shares with a neighbouring farm. There it could be stored to access during what are predicted to be regular dry summers as climate change continues to bite.

He has already installed one pool, which is successfully pumping water into the winter reservoir. John would love to install a further four, to help him become more self-sufficient and resilient to continuing drought conditions in the future. However, due to a perfect storm of labour shortages, price rises and lower yields due to a dry summer, he is not able to invest without further grant funding or help.

Protecting critical water resources for food supply, for nature, and for local communities

The Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap sets out a vision and key pathways to address the challenges the UK food and drink sector collectively faces in protecting critical water resources for food supply, for nature, and for local communities.

Our collective action projects work at a localised level, to deal directly with issues in key sourcing areas for UK food and drink businesses at home and overseas.

These projects allow food and drink businesses (like our Courtauld signatories) to contribute towards activities which mitigate and reduce water risks associated with farming and food production on the ground. Led by local experts, our projects engage a range of stakeholders and carry out targeted activities to address specific water-related challenges identified for the area. These might include nature-based solutions (e.g., tree planting, pond/wetland or winter reservoir creation); farm advice; stakeholder engagement and advocacy to improve overall water governance.

More support needed

The challenge though, is where to find the money needed to invest in the initial outlay during a difficult time for the industry: “There are lots of things we can do to reduce water use, but they all come with an initial price,” says John, “When this comes at a time when we are under financial pressure, with lots of issues converging at one time, it’s difficult to know where to strike the balance between surviving and investing in the future. We can do whatever improvements we can to reduce our environmental footprint, as long as we remain profitable.”

Nevertheless, he encourages others to tap into support and resources via their local Rivers Trust: “Sam’s involvement has opened our eyes to what could be done in our situation and made us realise that there is expertise to tap into; it has helped us enormously.”

“Of course, all of us as farmers are in slightly different situations, so it’s difficult to generalise about solutions, but one thing we all share is that we are facing a future where businesses are becoming more fragile, and we need to help our environment and protect our water sources.”

It’s clear that finding investment for solutions on the ground, will be key, which is why the Courtauld Water Roadmap is so important.

Explains John: “Most of us want to do the right thing and it is in everyone’s interest if we continue to produce the commodities they and their customers want and reduce our reliance on mains water.”

Fruit trees at Mockbeggar Farm

Despite the challenges John loves what he does: “I suppose you could say that if we were sensible, we wouldn’t be still doing this! But what we enjoy is that there are many different aspects to it – dealing with people, husbandry, embracing technology, all of the things you need to be aware of when growing different crops; it’s a very varied challenge.

“Although it is tough and can be stressful, it is also a way of life, and not just a job. When I walk out just before harvest and look out on a really nice crop and take in the nature - the dragonflies buzzing around, on a beautiful day, that is still very satisfying!”

WRAP's Rowen West-Henzell is passionate about how simple interventions can make big differences in protecting our most precious commodity - water: “Farmers have been growing fruit in this region for thousands of years. Even if the future of the UK’s fruit production is very uncertain, I would like to think that with innovation and collaboration we can overcome the challenges ahead so we can all continue to enjoy its benefits for many years to come.”

More information on how you can support our Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap is available at: Water Roadmap collective action projects | WRAP