Advice for farmers in periods of dry weather

Agricultural drought

Agricultural drought happens when there is not enough rainfall and moisture in soils which is essential for crop growth and some farming activities i.e. reducing water available for livestock. These conditions often happen alongside an environmental drought situation but usually before public water supplies are affected.  

A prolonged period of low rainfall can severely impact agriculture through crop failure, reduced crop yield and grass growth for grazing (quantity and/or quality), disrupted access to drinking water for livestock and increased fire risk (particularly in upland/heath areas). In some cases, hot summers can be favourable for vegetable planting and the production of soft fruit, if there is sufficient water and soil conditions.  However, hot summers can cause increased pests and diseases due to stress caused to plants by lack of water.  

We have produced dry weather advice to farmers. This advice document is available upon request by emailing

Abstraction (taking) of Water

Natural Resources Wales manages the effective use of water in Wales to balance the needs of people and the natural environment. This is done by issuing water abstraction and impoundment licences.

You are likely to need to apply for a licence if you want to impound water in any watercourse or take more than 20 cubic metres (4,000 gallons) of water per day from a:

  • river or stream
  • reservoir, lake or pond
  • canal
  • spring
  • underground source
  • dock, channel, creek, bay, estuary or arm of the sea

Find out more about water abstraction and impoundment licences

Legal abstraction without a licence

You may legally take up to 20 cubic metres (4,400 gallons) per day, per source of supply without an abstraction licence. This is known as an exempt abstraction.

One cubic metre is 220 gallons. A tanker of 2000 gallons capacity can hold approximately 10 cubic metres. A tanker of 3000 gallons capacity can hold approximately 14 cubic metres.

Please note the following conditions:

  • If an abstractor wishes to take water from multiple locations within the same source of supply, the total of all the abstractions must not exceed 20 cubic metres per day.
  • If an abstractor already holds an abstraction licence for a source of supply (because they are abstracting above 20 cubic metres per day) they cannot also abstract under the 20 cubic metres per day exemption from that source of supply without making changes to their licence.
  • Any access arrangements are a private matter between the person wishing to abstract and the owner of the land the source of supply is located on. We cannot grant access to any sources that are not located on our land.
  • The responsibility is on the abstractor to demonstrate that they are abstracting less than 20 cubic metres per day per source of supply. It is recommended that abstraction logs detailing date, time and volume abstracted are maintained for this purpose.

Where abstraction is necessary, for example for stock watering, it should be carried out in a way that minimises any potential risks to the habitat and its features as much as possible by ensuring:

  • minimum required quantities are taken
  • intake pipes/pumps are appropriately screened to prevent fish entering
  • the abstracted water is used as efficiently as possible
  • abstraction location and operation are considerate of any potential impacts to designated sites and species that may be present, and other abstractions

Allowing up to 20 cubic metres to be abstracted per 24 hours without the need for an abstraction licence relies on an expectation that the spirit of the exemption will be observed. Abstractors must pay due regard to the potential environmental impact that could occur as a result of the abstraction.

If a situation arises where an abstraction is causing or has the potential to cause any kind of environmental damage, e.g. a fish mortality, we reserve our right to take enforcement action.

Find out more about water abstraction and impoundment licences

Previously exempt activities

Some farmers have historically been able to abstract above 20 cubic metres per day without requiring an abstraction licence due to their activity being previously exempt (e.g. trickle irrigation) or because of their location within a previously exempt geographical area. Most of these exemptions have now been removed.

Read more about the removal of exempt activities and what this means if you are affected.

Potential alternative water sources

Farmers concerned that their private water supply will run dry should:

If a farmer is unable to use mains or source water from a neighbour, they should contact their local farmers union office and NRW for advice on alternative water supplies. Possible options can include:

  • abstraction of less than 20 cubic metres per day from a local water course
  • consider if there is scope to apply for or vary an existing abstraction licence
  • being directed to use a specific alternative supply (see below) near their location

You are advised to contact us to check if there are any licensing requirements or amendments needed and for advice on abstraction quantities if more than 20 cubic metres per day is needed.

If you wish to take water from water sources you will also need to consider:

  • whether you have the permission of the land owner
  • any potential environmental impact that could occur as a result the activity
  • if the water is safe to give to livestock
  • if you need a licence or a variation to a current licence

Alternative third-party sources

There are currently some unused sources of water, such as reservoirs and groundwater sources that are owned and/or operated by third parties.
These sources can potentially be used as strategic collection points for water for livestock over dry weather periods. In addition, there may be water available from de-watering activities e.g. quarry dewatering and engineering projects.

We require further information from farmers or farming unions on the potential need for using third party sources so we can discuss these options further. Prior agreement is required from the third party where there is an unused source, particularly in terms of volumes required, accessibility and any other health/safety considerations. Access and collection arrangements will be the responsibility of the farmer (not the third party).

Licence variations

In prolonged dry weather, existing abstractors may need to amend their licences to:

  • increase quantities
  • extend the authorised abstraction period,
  • move or add abstraction locations
  • amend current abstraction cessation conditions

We encourage abstractors to consider their future water needs and discuss these with us as soon as possible.

Spray irrigation restrictions

We may need to introduce restrictions on spray irrigators who do not have ”hands off flow” conditions on their licences. Section 57 (s57) of the Water Resources Act (1991 as amended) enables us to impose restrictions if there has been an exceptional shortage of rain.

Read more about restrictions on spray irrigation during dry weather.

Sustainable Land Management

During exceptionally hot and dry weather, the availability of forage for livestock is significantly reduced. Grass species (particularly rye grass) have shallow roots and are stressed quickly when the top layers of soil have low water content. In many circumstances, more semi-natural habitats that have a variety of species often with deeper roots will continue to provide forage as the ground water table drops and soil moisture deficits increase. If hot weather continues, more semi-natural habitats could provide valuable forage for livestock providing resilience to farms.

Landowners are required to seek a screening decision from Welsh Government before undertaking any improvement work (including ploughing, re-seeding or draining) on any uncultivated or semi-natural land. Land is considered uncultivated or semi-natural if it contains less than 25-30% improved agricultural species (such as rye grass or white clover).

Email Welsh Government:

Drier soil conditions allow machinery to access wet land that is normally inaccessible. Semi-natural land is covered by the EIA (Agriculture) Regulations. The Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (Wales) Regulations 2017 apply to all uncultivated land and semi-natural areas in Wales.


Livestock may also have access to different plant species as land, normally inaccessible due to water levels, dries out. Livestock owners should check such areas for the presence of toxic plants such as hemlock water dropwort. The risks of livestock eating toxic plants may be increased where they have had no previous familiarity with the plant or forage availability is restricted.

Keeping farm animals and horses in extreme weather/drought (guidance)

Land with designated protection such as SSSI

We will be as flexible as possible in considering requests to temporarily change grazing or cutting regimes on land with protected (SSSI) status. Advice will be given on a site by site basis.

Outside SSSIs, many habitats will tolerate a temporary increase in grazing level, but landowners should ensure that they do not over-graze the habitat and damage it, otherwise the benefit that these habitats deliver in terms of grazing will be diminished.

SSSI designated land also under a Glastir contract

We can only advise in relation to the SSSI requirements. If you have a Glastir contract on land designated as SSSI, you will need to discuss your plans with the Welsh Government.

Alternative sources of animal bedding

There are alternative sources of animal bedding that can be used within the agricultural sector. Some of this material may be waste and hence subject to further regulation (see below for information on waste exemptions).

Woodchip and wood derivatives

Woodchip bedding is intended as a straight replacement for straw when housing livestock indoors. Outside corral systems require a different type of chip and infrastructure development to manage runoff.

Read more about woodchip bedding on the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board website 

Virgin timber and virgin timber residues are not waste and can be utilised subject to their suitability as alternative bedding material without the need to register a waste exemption.

Wood and associated residues from post-sawmill production processes, e.g. furniture manufactures, such as off-cuts, shavings chippings and sawdust, either treated or not treated, is waste. Waste exemptions exist for the use of untreated wood waste as animal bedding.

After woodchip is used as animal bedding it will require treatment in the same way as straw. As it requires several years to break down it may require a separate farm yard manure pile.

Other plant material (e.g. Miscanthus, Bracken)

Some materials grown on the farm or sourced from local common land can be used as replacement animal bedding. It should be harvested when dry and the dried further. The attributes of each material have to be considered on a case by case basis and meet the approval of animal health.

Shredded Paper and cardboard

Shredded paper and cardboard from the waste industry can be used as animal bedding once it has been treated to remove plastics and metals.

Paper fibre, de-inked paper pulp and de-inked paper sludge from paper manufacturing

Paper fibre and pulp from the paper manufacturing industry can provide a suitable alternative bedding material. A waste exemption allows its use.

Regulation of waste used for animal bedding

You can register a waste exemption allowing specified waste to be used as alternative animal bedding. This exemption is known as a ‘Use exemption’ and referred to as U8.

Many farmers will have registered this waste exemption with NRW already, and registrations can be checked on our public register.

You can register an exemption free of charge, quickly and easily

By registering, you are agreeing to operate in line with criteria set out in the U8 exemption. If the criteria are not followed, the exemption is invalid and NRW may consider enforcement action.

Find out more about waste exemptions for agricultural activities, including animal bedding 

Before any waste can be used as an animal bedding the regulator and animal health will have to fully approve its use.

There are some wastes that Animal Health specifically exclude because of disease risk, for example, dried fibre derived from anaerobic digestion.

Read more on NFU online about protecting livestock and land from poor quality and unsuitable waste.

Farmers are reminded to be cautious of offers of woodchip from unknown sources and are encouraged to ask the supplier where the wood has come from and whether it is from untreated sources. If in doubt, speak to the local NRW representative.

A list of current woodchip suppliers can be accessed on

Please check with the supplier that you are only sourcing “virgin” wood as animal bedding.

Avoiding agricultural pollution in hot weather

The impact and severity of any pollution is exacerbated by naturally low levels of oxygen brought about by warmer water and low flows.

Using drinking bays, instead of allowing stock to enter water courses, can help keep water cleaner for stock to drink and neighbours downstream.

Hot weather can also result in changing farming practices, for example reduced silage cuts and increased slurry spreading. If slurry is applied to dry cracked ground, there is potential for increased connectivity to water courses, so we urge farmers to apply light applications of slurry and avoid spreading on land that has land drains.

Reporting environmental incidents

Should you become aware of an environmental incident we would urge you to contact us at the earliest opportunity by calling 0300 065 3000;

Types and effects of drought

There is no single definition of drought, but all droughts are characterised by rainfall shortage.

We identify three main types of drought which may occur separately or together:

  • Environmental drought
  • Water supply drought
  • Agricultural drought

Environmental drought

Environmental drought happens when a shortage of rain is having a detrimental impact on the environment. It is likely that there will be reduced river flows, exceptionally low groundwater levels and insufficient moisture within soils. These conditions often result in signs of stress for wildlife, fish and habit.

Fisheries are affected when low winter rainfall causes low flows in rivers and low levels in still-waters, at the time when some fish rely on flows being both variable and sufficient to allow upstream movement (for example for fish migration). In drought conditions, migratory fish are likely to pool up in estuaries and the lower reaches of river systems where they may become vulnerable to legal fishing and illegal activity. If flows continue to reduce or remain at critically reduced levels, fish will die.

Many wetlands can dry out and the usual wet pools will either dry or reduce. In hot dry summer conditions fire can also devastate vulnerable areas of heath land and moorland which is home to wildlife. In addition to these short-term effects, the longer term impacts of drought can become more severe.

When droughts occur during warmer than normal conditions, higher water temperatures present an extra problem. Some aquatic plants will no longer grow in warmer areas of standing and flowing water. This can have major long-term effects on the animals and plants that live in water, and also on animals that depend on water. As a drought develops there is also the risk that particular local species may die out where they are unable to move to areas that retain a suitable habitat. Whereas they may be able to survive one season of drought, several poor breeding seasons
could threaten some vulnerable species with extinction.

Water supply drought

Drought can significantly reduce the availability of water supply by reducing river flows, groundwater recharge and reservoir levels. Therefore, a water supply drought happens when a shortage of rain is causing water companies concern about supplies for their customers. It will tend to take longer to develop than environmental or agricultural drought as water company supply systems are developed to cope with dry weather. For example, multi-source supply systems, often using both surface and groundwater resources, have increased resilience to drought particularly to shorter drought periods.

Agricultural drought

Agricultural drought happens when there is not enough rainfall and moisture in soils to support crop production or farming practices such as spray irrigation. These conditions often happen alongside an environmental drought situation but usually before public water supplies are affected.

A prolonged period of low rainfall can have a serious effect on agriculture through crop failure, reduced crop yield (quantity and/or quality), disrupted access to drinking water for livestock and increased fire risk (particularly in upland/heath areas). However, hot summers can be favourable for vegetable planting and the production of soft fruit.

The full guidance is available upon request by emailing

Last updated