Skip links

A final line of defence: combatting the slow, agonising death of the River Wye

The agonising death of the River Wye has unfolded in recent years like a car crash
in slow motion.

This magnificent watercourse, so often voted our country’s most loved river, has in
recent years been assaulted by a deluge of pollution from intensive agriculture,
causing prolonged algal blooms which turn the river each year into a putrid green
soup, snuffing the life out of the river by starving it of oxygen and light.

How could this have happened to a river with some of the highest available
environmental protections, such as its Special Area of Conservation (SAC) status?
One answer can be found in 2018 when Tesco awarded Avara Foods, the Cargill
owned Hereford-based poultry processor, its principal contract to supply chicken
meat. To satisfy our largest food retailer’s insatiable weekly demand for three million
chickens, a spate of planning applications was waived through by local councils to
build dozens of new intensive poultry units (IPUs). The net result today is over 24
million birds being reared at any one time across the Wye river catchment – around
a quarter of the country’s total poultry production.

These huge chicken sheds are today’s equivalent of the infamous Dark Satanic Mills
of Victorian times. Their production cycle starts with hundreds of thousands of tiny
chicks (or pullets) being stuffed with feed imported from Cargill’s intensive soy farms
in deforested Amazonia (therein lies another scandalous tale of environmental
destruction). Within six weeks these force-fed birds (which although fully-grown are
not able to walk due to the speed in which they have been “produced”) are whisked
off to become Tesco special offer drumsticks or some ready meal.

But the worst is yet to come. 

The tens of thousands of tons of excrement in which these wretched creatures
waddle during their short miserable lives is then shovelled out of the sheds and
dumped across the fields of the Wye Valley and elsewhere.  In a short period of time
this industrial-scale manure dumping has caused the land of the river catchment to
become overdosed by several times the level of phosphorous that can ever be
absorbed naturally by what grows there. And each year more gets added.

The extraordinary thing is that we believe doing this is often in breach of the law. The
2018 Farming Rules for Water created a set of protections for watercourses to
prevent agricultural pollution. The most important of these in our view is Regulation
4, which states that it is illegal to apply to the land organic manure or manufactured
fertilisers in a manner that would “exceed the needs of the soil and crop on that
land”

If this law to prevent nutrient oversaturation had been properly enforced, then we
argue that the horrendous pollution of the Wye catchment could have largely been
prevented. However, we believe effective lobbying by the National Farmers Union
led to DEFRAinstructing the Environment Agency to turn a blind eye to enforcing this critical
protection. Disappointingly, the EA has slavishly followed the instructions of its
political masters and the tragic consequences are all too plain to see.

Determined to challenge this state of affairs, River Action has spent the last 12
months clawing our way through a tortuous legal process to be able to hold the
Environment Agency and DEFRA to account through a Judicial Review. Finally, we
made to the High Court this week where we faced up to the combined force of the
legal teams of the Environment Agency, DEFRA and the NFU. The latter at the last
minute gate-crashed the legal proceeding to defend the rights of its members to
continue to dispose of manure in a manner, we believe, pollutes rivers.

At the core of our legal case is our view that the EA has acted unlawfully by not
enforcing these regulations. In doing so, we believe it has also failed dismally in its
statutory duty to protect the SAC of the River Wye. 

As the river continues its death spiral (its environmental status was recently
downgraded by Natural England to just one notch up from being pronounced dead),
there remain a few rays of hope. Faced with a huge public outcry, Avara has now
acknowledged its role in polluting the Wye and has pledged that all manure
produced by its supply chain will be exported out of the river catchment. Meanwhile,
a small number of exemplary poultry producers, such as the 625,000-bird Whittern
Farms in Herefordshire, have started recycling their chicken manure into phosphate-
rich pelletised fertiliser. This in turn is sold to arable farms in East Anglia to substitute
imported chemical fertilisers.

However, whilst these individual initiatives must be welcomed, they will not move the
dial if the environmental regulations designed to protect our rivers are not robustly
enforced.

Communities up and down the Wye and along other rivers across the nation will now
be anxiously awaiting the judge’s deliberations on our Judicial Review. Many of
these inspiring river activists were with us this week demonstrating outside the court
in Cardiff as we went in to begin the Judicial Review hearing.

We can but dare to hope that the courts provide our long-suffering rivers with a final
line of defence, given the abject failure of those government agencies whose job it
should have been to protect them.
 
Charles Watson
Chairman and Founder, River Action