The Need For Collaborative Action

The River Medway

At the heart of the Garden of England

The River Medway in Kent supports a thriving polytunnel horticulture industry, but it is one of the driest and most populated areas in the UK.

Horticulture is vital for the local, regional and national economy and needs to be sustained. However, there is concern over a lack of water in the very near future and activities may place pressure on the river and local infrastructure.

It is vital we come together to protect the future of the River Medway, the catchment and the ecosystem services they provide to businesses, industry, communities and wildlife. 

What do the numbers say?

The Link To Polytunnel Growing

Over the last 10 years, there has been significant growth of the soft fruit horticulture industry.

Consumer demand for UK quality soft fruit continues to grow. To meet this demand, the Medway’s booming polytunnel-based soft fruit industry uses large amounts of water through trickle irrigation to produce high quality crops over an extended growing period. 

Many farms belong to accredited schemes such as LEAF and Red Tractor and have good water and nutrient recapture measures in place. However more needs to be done to mitigate any negative environmental impacts.

There’s not enough water

Water abstraction is controlled through a licencing system. Demand for water in the area is very high, and groundwater and surface water sources in the Medway catchment are both fully abstracted and licenced. 

Almost all Medway soft fruit producers say that irrigation is “very important or crucial to their business” and are concerned about insufficient water to meet future business needs. Growers use high precision trickle irrigation to manage the amount of water needed to grow their crops. However, they must now apply for licences for trickle irrigation which was previously exempt.

All these factors drive the need for fruit growers to find and store alternative sources of water. 

Excess nutrients entering local rivers

Nowadays, responsible growers use precision irrigation and monitoring to maximise profits, save water and reduce excess nutrient runoff.

However, there is significant variation in practices across polytunnel businesses, with excess nutrients from poorly performing irrigation systems potentially finding its way into the environment and reducing the water quality of nearby rivers and streams. 

Surface water flooding

Polytunnel growing sites often span many hectares, covering the ground with an artificial surface that causes rainfall to run-off quickly.

When preventative measures are not taken, this rapid run-off reaches streams and rivers more quickly, causing a sudden surge in water levels.

Excess runoff from polytunnels situated in areas where there is less environmental resilience can cause localised flooding through surface water runoff, causing damage and eroding precious soil.

Above all, there is the natural environment: the source of clean water and healthy soils, the home of flowing rivers and healthy biodiverse habitats. We need to work together towards building and maintaining essential, ecosystem services for a sustainable future that benefits everyone.

It is time to act collectively for holistic water management, to work together for a healthier catchment that supports resilient businesses in sustainable supply chains.