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Regular droughts could change the face of the English countryside, with serious implications for farmers, local aut...
Regular droughts could change the face of the English countryside, with serious implications for farmers, local authorities and visitors, a report for the Countryside Commission reveals.

It follows in depth research into the 1995 drought which parched the country, leading to empty reservoirs, scorched earth and hosepipe bans.

While the countryside appears to have largely recovered, a repeat of the drought in 1996 may have significantly more serious impacts, says the commission. It points out that:

-- The threat of fire could force the closure of may access sites in areas such as moorland and woodland

-- Demand for water abstraction from sensitive parts of the countryside might increase, while hosepipe bans threaten the quality of urban parks and gardens

-- Hedgerows dying through lack of water, and dried out ditches, would have to be replaced by fencing to keep stock from straying

-- Dry summers mean poorer air quality - leading many people to shun the countryside as a place for quiet, healthy recreation and not just when pollution levels are high

-- Other visitors would switch to cooler evening visits, forcing local authorities to consider the introduction of evening wardening at key sites

-- Lazy-day fast foods would increase, with implications for litter control budgets

-- Non-native trees, better able to cope with dry weather conditions would have to be planted, while insurance companies may cause the demise of street and garden trees by recommending their removal due to claims for subsidence and root damage

The report points out that ozone pollution (which often migrates from cities to the countryside, where the effects of sunlight make it more dense) exceeded the European Union's warning level in parts of Oxfordshire last August.

Lower level guidelines were breached for days on end right across the country.

More people headed for the shady woodland areas as temperaturesn soared, and at many areas, including Dartmoor National Park, there was more pressure for warden patrols because of the number of evening visitors. One welcome aspect was that the number of foreign tourists visiting Britain in 1995 increased. There was a corresponding rise in income generated from tourism.

Fire risks caused the closure of woodland camping sites, moorland parks and heaths, and up to 90% of newly planted trees died through lack of water in some areas including, ironically, along the banks of the River Thames.

Marshland habitats dried out, adversely affecting scarce marshland birds like snipe, redshank and curlew - another threat should the droughts continue. Grassland quickly parched and became overgrazed and some farmers had to give livestock supplementary feed. Poor yields of root crops resulted in higher prices.

While excessive sunshine killed off harmful bacteria in the sea and polluted storm water drains dried out giving the oceans a respite, many inland waters were closed because of toxic blue- green algae.

When the rain finally returned, accumulated fuel fromroad surfaces and stagnant water held in underground pipes was flushed once more into the water courses, causing de-oxygenation.

The summer months of June - August 1995 were the driest in England since records began in 1659, says the report, while November 1994 - October 1995 was the warmest 12 month period for over 300 years.

'If the effect of climate change is a greater incidence of hot, dry summers, the experience of 1995 may show what future summers in England's countryside could be like,' warns the report.

-- The report on the impacts and implications of the 1995 summer drought has been prepared as a follow-up to the commission's earlier report on climate change. It checks whether the issues reported in the publication are happening in practice.

The earlier report was entitled Climate Change, Acidification and Ozone (CCP 458, priced £25 plus £2.50 p&p). It was accompanied by a summary document, Climate Change, Air Pollution and the English Countryside (CCP 458 FL, free of charge). Both are available from Countryside Commission Postal Sales, PO Box 124, Walgrave, Northampton NN6 9TL (tel: 01604 781848).

-- The Countryside Commission is hoping that local authorities, National Parks, Wildlife Trusts and all other countryside organisations will be encouraged to start recording the effects of climate change so that these can form the basis for future updates of this kind of information.

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